Differences Between a Medical Assistant and Nursing Assistant

Emily Wulf, MSN, BSN, RN
Nursing assistant helping an elderly woman.

On the surface, medical assistants (MAs) — also known as certified medical assistants (CMAs), certified medical technician (CMT), or registered medical assistant (RMA) — and nursing assistants (NAs) — sometimes referred to as certified nursing assistants (CNAs) — may sound like the same role. They both play crucial roles in patient care and overall healthcare operations. However, their specific duties, training requirements, and work environments differ significantly.

The differences are particularly important for individuals considering an MA or NA career. In this article, we’ll address what is the difference between a medical assistant and a nursing assistant by demystifying the roles by highlighting the key attributes of each and help those navigating their career options in the healthcare sector.

Similar Titles with Distinct Variations

While both roles are crucial to quality healthcare delivery and involve direct patient care, medical assistants have a broader scope that includes administrative tasks and typically work in outpatient settings. In contrast, nursing assistants focus solely on patient care, primarily in inpatient settings, and have a more direct path toward advancing in nursing careers. Here are key differences between the roles:

Education and Certification

Medical Assistants

Nursing Assistants

  • Typically complete a 1-2 year vocational or community college program that covers both clinical and administrative duties. Certification is optional but encouraged, as it can enhance job prospects.
  • Complete a shorter training program, often lasting a few weeks to a couple of months that’s focused on basic patient care. They must pass a state certification exam to become a CNA.

Job Duties

Medical Assistants

Nursing Assistants

  • Work in outpatient or ambulatory care facilities under the supervision of a healthcare provider. Their duties are a blend of clinical tasks (such as taking vital signs, administering injections, and preparing blood samples) and administrative tasks (such as scheduling appointments, maintaining records, and billing).
  • Primarily work in long-term care facilities, hospitals, and sometimes in patients’ homes, providing basic care under the supervision of nursing staff. Their duties include assisting with daily living activities (bathing, dressing, feeding), transferring patients, taking vital signs, and reporting changes in patient condition to nurses.

Scope of Practice

Medical Assistants

Nursing Assistants

  • Varies by state but generally includes more varied duties, combining patient care with administrative responsibilities.
  • Focus on direct patient care with a scope of practice that is more limited to basic care and support, without the administrative duties typical of medical assistants.

Work Environment

Medical Assistants

Nursing Assistants

  • Mostly found in outpatient settings such as medical offices and clinics.
  • Often work in inpatient settings like nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and hospitals.

Career Path and Advancement

Medical Assistants

Nursing Assistants

  • May choose to specialize in a particular area of medicine, pursue further education to become a nurse or other healthcare professional, or advance into office management.
  • Can use their experience as a stepping stone to further their career in nursing, often becoming licensed practical nurses (LPNs) or registered nurses (RNs) through additional education and training.

Medical Assistant Certification Can Be a Career Boost

While medical assistant certification isn’t mandated in all states, many organizations recognize the value of offering educational and professional growth opportunities to advance a medical assistant’s career. Entities that hire certified medical assistants not only enhance the organization’s reputation but also help to stand out in the competitive healthcare industry by offering superior services and demonstrating a commitment to excellence.

There are several types of certifications available for medical assistants, each with its own set of requirements and focus. The most recognized certifications include:

The process of maintaining MA certification typically requires continuing education. For example, the CMA (AAMA) credential needs to be renewed every five years and requires a total of 60 recertification points. At least 30 points must come from continuing education units (CEs) that have been approved by the AAMA. MAs can earn up to 30 points from non-AAMA CE sources, such as contact hours, physician CME credits, and college or university credit.

MedTrainer offers 30 hours of continuing education (CE) courses approved by AAMA. These courses — combined with MedTrainer’s extensive CE course library — provide recertification points for AAMA certified medical assistants on one cloud-based platform.

Read more about MedTrainer’s 30 hours of CEs approved by the AAMA.

Support Medical Assistants With Continuing Education 

Employers benefit every time a medical assistant completes continuing education courses. It can be easier to find and retain MAs, improve patient care, and reduce certification lapses.

MedTrainer Learning is an enterprise cloud-based software with the largest proprietary course library of healthcare content curated specifically to meet the requirements of regulatory and accreditation organizations. New and updated courses are added every month, so you never have to worry if training is up-to-date. 

MedTrainer offers all the conveniences of a modern learning management system including automated completion reminders, assessments with every course, and the ability to upload your own training. Course completions are automatically tracked and customizable reporting means that you are always survey ready. See how we can help.


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