Medical Assistant vs Registered Nurse: What Exactly is the Difference Between Careers

So you’re thinking about becoming a medical assistant or registered nurse?

Both careers are in high demand, but they both have different job duties and require different levels of education.

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In this blog post, we will compare and contrast medical assistants and registered nurses, so you can decide which career is right for you!

This post is for general informational and educational purposes only. You can read the full disclaimer for more information.

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants are healthcare professionals who perform administrative duties and clinical tasks to support the work of medical doctors and other healthcare providers.

Medical assistants typically have a degree from a two-year program or a certificate from a medical assistant program.

The administrative tasks medical assistants perform include answering phones, scheduling appointments, and handling medical records. They also often, take medical histories.

Clinical tasks of medical assistants include helping with the physical examination of patients. Including measuring patients’ vital signs, such as blood pressure and weight.

They also may apply simple dressings to wounds and perform basic laboratory tests. Testing includes checking blood sugar levels and performing pregnancy tests.

Some medical assistants are certified and have more responsibilities than those who are not certified.

Certified medical assistants’ duties include authorizing drug refills as directed, telephoning prescriptions to pharmacies, drawing blood, preparing patients for x-rays, taking electrocardiograms, removing sutures, and changing dressings.

Medical assistants can work in a variety of settings including hospitals, clinics, physician’s offices, and other healthcare facilities. The duties of medical assistants vary from state to state and from facility to facility.

Ophthalmologists and optometrists employ ophthalmic medical assistants and optometric assistants to assist with eye care. They teach patients how to insert, remove, and maintain contact lenses.

An ophthalmologist may also count on an ophthalmic medical assistant for assistance during surgery.

Podiatric medical assistants work directly with podiatrists (foot doctors). They may cast feet, expose and develop x-rays, and assist podiatrists in surgery.

Medical assistants usually report to a medical doctor or other health care provider. Some medical assistants work in a team with other medical assistants and office staff. Others may work independently with little supervision.

Medical assistants are employed full-time in most cases. Some work evenings, weekends, or holidays to cover shifts at medical facilities that stay open 24/7.

What is a Registered Nurse?

Registered nurses (RNs) are health care professionals who provide direct patient care, including complicated procedures and diagnostic tests.

They also supervise other health care workers such as a licensed practical nurse, nursing assistant, and home health aide.

RNs have a wide range of responsibilities, from taking vital signs and administering medication to providing emotional support and counseling patients and their families.

Many of the RNs’ duties depend on the type of unit or location in which they work. For example, RNs who work in an emergency room (ER) must be able to quickly assess a patient’s condition and provide appropriate treatment.

RNs who work in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) provides care to patients with critical, complicated, and acute problems that need constant monitoring and treatment.

No matter where they work, RNs are responsible for accurately documenting patient conditions and ensuring that patients receive the best possible care. 

They also work with other health care professionals to develop patient care plans for patients. In addition, RNs often teach patients and their families how to manage their illness or injury.

Nurses who work at hospitals and nursing care facilities typically do shift work to offer around-the-clock care. They may be required to work nights, weekends, and holidays.

They could also be on call, which means that they must be available to work at short notice if needed.

Nurses who work in offices, schools, and other workplaces that do not provide round-the-clock service are more likely to work normal business hours.

Education requirements for Medical Assistants

Medical assistants must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, although many medical assistants have completed postsecondary education programs.

Community colleges, vocational schools, technical schools, and universities all offer programs for medical assisting that take about one year to complete. Most programs offer a certificate or diploma. 

Some community colleges provide two-year associate’s degrees. Anatomy and medical terminology are covered in all programs, with classroom and laboratory portions.

Most states do not require medical assistants to be licensed, but some states have certification requirements.

Certification can show employers that a medical assistant has the necessary skills and knowledge to perform their job duties.

The most common certification for medical assistants is the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential, which is offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).

To earn this credential, medical assistants must pass a national exam.

Education requirements for Registered Nurses

There are many different educational paths to becoming an RN. Some RNs complete their diploma in a 2-3 year program, usually attached to a hospital or medical center.

Registered nurses can also obtain an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or an associate of science in nursing degree (ASN), from an accredited nursing program.

Both degrees may take up to 4 years to earn due to prerequisite classes needing to be completed.

Some registered nurses may choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), which they too typically take 4 years to complete. Obtaining a BSN can lead to higher-paying and more advanced positions.

Bachelor’s, associate’s, and diploma programs all require clinical experience.

Registered nurses must be licensed. To become licensed, candidates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). 

After obtaining an RN license, registered nurses must complete continuing education courses to maintain their license. The number of required hours and the topics covered vary by state.

Some states require RNs to complete a certain number of continuing education credits every year, while others require RNs to complete a set number of credits every two years.

Continuing education courses are important because they allow registered nurses to keep up with the latest changes in medical care.

They also provide registered nurses the opportunity to learn new skills and expand their knowledge base.

Medical assistant salary

Medical assistants had a median annual salary of $37,190 in May 2021. The lowest 10% of medical assistants earned less than $29,070, and the highest 10% earned more than $48,170. (source)

May 2021, the median annual salary in the top industries was:

Outpatient care centers $38,270
Hospitals; state, local, and private $37,800
Offices of physicians $37,150
Offices of chiropractors $30,100
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Registered Nurse Salary

Registered Nurses had a median annual salary of $77,600 in May 2021. The lowest 10% of registered nurses earned less than $59,450, and the highest 10% earned more than $120,250. (source)

May 2021, the median annual salary in the top industries was:

Government $85,970
Hospitals; state, local, and private $78,070
Ambulatory healthcare services $76,700
Nursing and residential care facilities $72,420
Educational services; state, local, and private $61,780
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Medial Assistant employment outlook

The need for medical assistants is projected to grow 18 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations (source).

Demand for preventive medical services, which are often provided by physicians, will continue to increase as the baby-boom generation matures.

As a consequence, doctors will need greater help to handle routine administrative and clinical tasks in order to see more patients.

Support staff, particularly medical assistants, will be required in a growing number of organizations, clinics, and other healthcare facilities to help with both administrative and clinical duties.

Medical assistants work mostly in primary care, an expanding sector of the healthcare field.

Registered nurse employment outlook

The need for registered nurses is projected to grow 9 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations (source).

Because of the large number of older people, there will be greater demand for healthcare services. Nurses will be required to educate and care for individuals with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and obesity.

Hospitals are under financial pressure to discharge patients as soon as possible, and this may lead to an increase in the number of people being admitted to long-term or other types of care facilities, as well as a greater need for healthcare at home.

Rehabilitation centers that treat stroke and head-injury patients and facilities treating individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are expected to experience employment growth.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment growth in outpatient care centers, where patients do not stay overnight, such as same-day chemotherapy treatments, rehabilitation therapies, and operations, is anticipated to be much quicker than average.

Registered nurses will also be in demand in these environments since many older individuals prefer to receive treatment at home or in residential care homes.

Medical assistant vs. Registered Nurse: What are the differences?

There are several major differences between medical assistants and registered nurses. While both medical assistants and registered nurses provide patient care their scopes of practice differ.

Medical assistants typically perform administrative and clinical tasks to support the work of physicians and other health care professionals, while registered nurses provide direct patient care, including more complex procedures.

Medical assistants, do not need to pass a licensure exam to work in most states. While registered nurses must have at least an associate’s degree or diploma and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to earn their license.

Medical assistants typically work in physicians’ offices, while nurses can work in a variety of healthcare settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes. Finally, nurses earn a higher salary than medical assistants.

Medical Assistant vs Registered Nurse takeaway

Overall, both medical assistants and registered nurses play vital roles in the healthcare industry.

While there are some key differences between the two professions, such as the scope of practice and training requirements, both occupations are necessary for providing quality patient care.

When deciding which career path is right for you, be sure to consider your interests and goals to make the best decision for your future.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about medical assistants or registered nurses. I’d be happy to answer them!

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