CMA vs. LPN: Education, Credentialing & Responsibilities

Individuals with a desire to work in healthcare may want to consider pursuing a career either as a certified medical assistant (CMA) or as a licensed practice nurse (LPN). These careers do not require the same sacrifice of time and finances as a medical degree. In fact, both CMAs and LPNs require only a couple of years of postsecondary education. These careers also allow a professional to perform a variety of tasks that help facilitate communication among staff and the proper treatment of patients.

While there are a number of similarities between these two positions, there does exist a wide variety of differences, as well. For example, a CMA may spend the majority of his or her time performing administrative tasks at the front of the office, while an LPN is most often in a clinical setting, interacting with patients and performing basic, routine care. Furthermore, each of these individual professions is governed by different certifying and licensing organizations, as well.

Choosing between these two options as a future career path requires a thorough understanding of each role. To assist in the decision-making process, a basic overview of the similarities, differences, and overlap between CMAs and LPNs follows, as well as a convenient side-by-side comparison table that can serve as a reference as you make your final choice.

Similarities, Differences, and Overlap: CMA vs. LPN

The most obvious similarity between these two professions is that practitioners in either field will find themselves acting as an assistant to both healthcare personnel and their patients. Both CMAs and LPNs offer help to doctors and nurses, instead of acting on their own. In addition, in many cases both CMAs and LPNs will find themselves in a clinical setting, performing routine tasks regarding patient care, such as administering medication or preparing patients for examination.

On the other hand, significant differences between these two professions do exist, which make them more suitable for some aspiring healthcare workers than others. For one, as mentioned above, many CMAs will work in an administrative setting, making phone calls and scheduling patient appointments; in contrast, LPNs will virtually always work in a clinical setting, which may be in a hospital, private clinic, nursing home, or other healthcare facility. Additionally, while CMAs must obtain certification through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), LPNs need to pass the NCLEX-PN examination through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) in order to be eligible for state licensure.

The details mentioned above are only a small sampling of the similarities and differences between these two career options. To help you better understand the scope of these two professions, we have provided a clear side-by-side comparison table.

Side-by-Side Comparison: CMA vs. LPN

Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
Number Practicing

There are currently 686,600 CMAs employed throughout the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 728,900 LVNs and LPNs are employed in the United States.

Median Pay (2019)

$16.16 per hour, or $33,610 per year

$22.23 per hour, or $46,240 per year

Expected Job Growth (2018-2028)

23 percent

11 percent

Expected New Jobs Added by 2028

154,900

78,100

Meeting the Requirements
Degree Requirements

Aspiring CMAs ideally obtain a degree accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) in order to eligible for certification.

LPNs must complete a nursing program that is approved by their specific state nursing board in order to be eligible to receive state licensure.

Degrees Available

Those interested in becoming a CMA must obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree from an accredited program.

An aspiring LPN may complete a state-approved nursing diploma program at the minimum. To remain competitive, however, an individual may wish to obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree, which can lead to further job advancement.

Program Details

A bachelor’s degree program generally takes four years, while an associate degree takes two. Each of these includes clinical experience and laboratory-based courses.

Many state-approved nursing diploma programs only require one year, and generally include supervised clinical experience and extensive study of biology, anatomy, and related courses. A subsequent associate degree may take one to two years, while a bachelor’s degree often requires four years of study.

School Accreditation

According to AAMA, an individual who wishes to become certified CMA must complete a program that is accredited by a body recognized by the United States Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and/or that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

The NCSBN states that individuals must be eligible to take the NCLEX-PN based on the individual state’s nursing board standards, which generally requires the successful completion of a state-approved nursing program that culminates in the awarding of a diploma or degree.

On-Campus Programs The following schools offer programs in medical assisting on campus: The following schools offer programs in nursing on campus:
Online Programs The following schools offer programs in medical assisting online: The following schools offer programs in nursing online:
Certification and Licensing
Certification

Certification as a CMA is available through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).

LPNs may pursue certification through a number of different organizations, such as the National Association for Practical Nurse Education and Service (NAPNES), the National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses (NFLPN), and many others.

Licensing

Licensure requirements ultimately depend on the state in which the CMA hopes to practice.

In order to obtain licensure as an LPN, an individual must take the NCLEX-PN examination through the NCSBN and obtain a license from their state’s board of nursing.

Licensing Agency

The licensing agency for a CMA will depend on the state in which he or she wishes to work.

The licensing agency is the nursing board in the state wherein the aspiring LPN resides.

Re-certification

Re-certification as a CMA is required every 60 months, and can be done either by exam or by completing continuing education courses.

LPNs typically need to renew their licenses every two years, and they may need to perform certain tasks in order to do so (e.g., continuing education, professional nursing activities, or nursing employment). For example, a nurse in Texas must complete 20 hours of continuing education in order to remain eligible to renew his or her nursing license. Relicensing requirements vary by state, so check with your state board of nursing for up-to-date relicensing information.

Specialization CMAs have the option to work either in a clinical or administrative setting. Furthermore, some CMAs may choose to specialize in the following fields of medicine, among many others:
  • Internal medicine
  • Dermatology
  • Chiropractic care
  • Obstetrics
  • Podiatry
  • Urology
LPNs may choose to obtain specialty certifications in a number of fields, including the following:
  • Nephrology
  • Hospice and palliative care
  • Developmental disability care
  • Immunization
  • Renal dialysis
  • Advanced orthopedics
  • Operating room care
Details About the Job
Practice Framework

CMAs find themselves working as part of a larger team, as their purpose is to provide assistance to healthcare personnel and patients. Some will work in an administrative setting at the front of an office, while others will work in a clinical environment, often in examination rooms.

LPNs typically work under the supervision of another member of the staff, such as an RN or a licensed doctor. In some cases, an LPN with experience may work in a supervisory capacity above other LPNs with less training or experience in the field.

Skills Necessary for Success

CMAs must have a strong attention to detail and a high degree of patience. Furthermore, CMAs must possess interpersonal and analytical skills, as well as skills in time management.

The BLS posits that LPNs should possess the following attributes in order to succeed throughout their career:
  • Compassion
  • Patience
  • Physical stamina
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Speaking skills
  • Attention to detail
Common Practice Settings

CMAs may find themselves working in a clinic, a hospital, or another healthcare facility.

Although LPNs often work in hospitals, others may find employment in a clinic, while some may work in schools, correctional facilities, or nursing homes.

Barry Franklin
Barry Franklin Editor

Barry is the Editor-in-Chief of MedicalTechnologySchools.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Previously, Barry served as a VP at a Silicon Valley software company. In addition to running editorial operations at Sechel, Barry also serves on the Board of Trustees at a local K-8 school, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, where he also met his wife.