Just as the science and technology behind healthcare is constantly growing and evolving, so is the medical workforce who are providing the care to a growing variety of populations. The result is an abundance of exciting opportunities for those interested in these careers, but it may be difficult in the beginning to decide which healthcare career is the right one for you. If you are considering entering a career as a registered nurse (RN) or as a medical assistant (MA), you probably already know that they are both responsible for the health and well-being of patients, but you may not be aware of the differences between these two occupations.

RN vs. MA Education

There are substantial differences between the education requirements to become a registered nurse and a medical assistant. To begin with, programs for nursing are much longer than for medical assistants. While there may be some variation between states, typically it takes about 2 years for an associate degree in nursing (ADN), and 4 years for a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN). Nursing programs are a combination of traditional coursework, which can be completed online in some programs, and clinical rotations which must be completed on-site under a registered nurse preceptor and are more in-depth than for medical assistants.

In contrast, medical assistants may only need the minimal requirement of a high school diploma or GED and to be hired by an employer willing to do on-the-job training. However, this is quickly becoming the exception to the rule, and it has become increasingly necessary for those pursuing medical assistant training to go through an accredited training program. These programs typically incorporate both book and practicum learning as well as an internship or externship experience.

RELATED: How to Become an RN

RN vs. MA Employment & Salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, both registered nurses and medical assistants, as well as most healthcare occupations, are in high demand and will continue to experience above average career growth over other occupations for the years to come. Reported in the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median salary for register nurses in 2017 was $70,000 compared with medical assistants earning $32,480.

Generally, registered nurses with a BSN make a higher salary than nurses from ADN programs, and certified medical assistants can expect a higher wage than the non-certified. Additionally, registered nurses can become certified in specialties like labor & delivery or critical care, which depending on the state and employer, typically enjoy a slight increase in pay as well.

While registered nurses and medical assistants share some patient care similarities, these two careers have some very distinct differences. Registered nurses frequently work in hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, surgical centers, and can also venture into non-traditional nursing roles away from direct patient care, such as chart review positions with insurance companies. Normally, job duties for registered nurses are focused solely on patient care with related chart documentation and don't cross-train into administrative type tasks as medical assistants frequently do. Registered nurses report to a supervising physician and carry-out patient care as directed by doctor's orders while working within the scope of their own licensure. Medical assistants typically work in clinic settings under the direct supervision of a registered nurse or physician while assisting in patient-centered clinical duties as well as performing administrative tasks within the office setting.

RN vs. MA Job Duties

RN Job Duties (may include, but not limited to):

  • Perform all the medical assistant patient-centered duties
  • Collect patient health histories
  • Perform patient physical exams, health assessments, and diagnostic tests
  • Interpret patient information and make decisions about necessary actions
  • Educate patients about treatment plans and procedures
  • Observe and record patient response to treatments
  • Administer and monitor patient medications
  • Assist patient with activities of daily living (bathing, eating, ambulating)
  • Consult with nurse supervisors and physicians to determine best treatment plans
  • Develop nursing care plans
  • Maintain the flow and coordination of the healthcare team around patient
  • Direct, delegate, and supervise the care of other healthcare professionals, including licensed practical nurses (LPN), certified nurse assistants (CNA), and medical assistants (MA)
  • Admit and discharge patients appropriately
  • Coordinate community resources for patient and family where appropriate

MA Job Duties (may include, but not limited to):

  • Take medical histories
  • Explain treatment procedures to patients
  • Prepare patients for examination
  • Assist the physician during exam
  • Collect and prepare laboratory specimens
  • Perform basic laboratory tests
  • Instruct patients about medication and special diets
  • Prepare and administer medication as directed by a physician
  • Transmit prescription refills as directed
  • Draw blood
  • Perform electrocardiograms
  • Remove sutures and change dressings
  • Use computer applications
  • Answer phones
  • Greet patients
  • Update and file patient medical records
  • Code and fill out insurance forms
  • Schedule appointments
  • Arrange for hospital admissions and laboratory services
  • Handle correspondence, billing, bookkeeping

RELATED: How to Become a Medical Assistant

RN Licensing vs. MA Certification

Nurses are eligible upon graduating from an accredited nursing program to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Upon successfully passing this exam, nurse graduates become registered or licensed and may add the credentials RN to their name. Licensure is a requirement that allows nurses to practice their profession legally within that state. The registered nurse must renew their license periodically according to their specific state's requirements.

RELATED: MA to RN

Medical assistants also have the opportunity upon graduation from a postsecondary medical assisting program to take the certification exam through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Once the certification exam is passed, medical assistants may adopt the credentials CMA. While it is not currently a state or federal requirement for medical assistants to become certified, employers are increasingly requiring it. The certified medical assistant credential must be renewed every 5 years.