Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) vs Registered Nurse (RN)

Both certified medical assistants (CMAs) and registered nurses (RNs) perform genuinely vital healthcare tasks. CMAs and RNs assist licensed doctors and other medical personnel and are often responsible for various patients’ general treatment and care. While there are similarities between these two positions, there are also several distinctions.

What is the difference between a CMA and an RN? Some factors that separate these two careers include specific day-to-day responsibilities, workplace environments, and the prerequisites necessary to work in this capacity. The amount of education required for these positions also differs; becoming a CMA typically requires a one-year post-secondary certificate while becoming an RN takes two to four years. CMA certification is available but optional, while nurses are required by law to be licensed, and some pursue certification in specialty areas such as pediatrics, oncology, or gerontology.

For those trying to decide between becoming either a CMA or an RN, it is crucial to fully understand the scope of both fields to move forward with a career path. Aspiring healthcare professionals will be pleased to know that CMAs are well-positioned with educational prerequisites and work experience to apply for RN educational programs in the future.

Read on to discover the differences, similarities, and overlaps between both fields, as well as a side-by-side comparison chart.

What is a CMA vs RN: Similarities, Differences, and Overlap

One similarity between CMAs and RNs is that both work in the healthcare field and generally assist with patient care in various ways. For example, both a CMA and an RN may be responsible for preparing a patient for an examination, recording patient information, or administering medications as requested by the treating physician.

However, there are also substantial differences that set these two apart. For example, CMAs generally have the opportunity to work in either a clinical or administrative setting. A CMA may be preparing patients and administering medication in a clinical setting. A CMA may be creating the staff schedule in an administrative environment and calling patients to follow up with their appointments.

On the other hand, RNs do not work exclusively in an administrative capacity; instead, they generally have a more clinical role, including assisting the physician with patients. Furthermore, licensing requirements and credentialing bodies are different for these two positions. CMAs may pursue licensing through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). At the same time, RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) exam, administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

The reference guide below distinguishes between these distinct yet related career paths to learn more about what it takes to become a CMA and RN.

Side-by-Side Comparison: Medical Assistants and Registered Nurses

Registered Nurse Certified Medical Assistant
Number practicing in the United States The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Feb. 2019) reports that 3,096,000 RNs currently work in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020), there are presently 725,200 CMAs employed throughout the United States.
Pay (BLS May 2020) $35.24 per hour, or $73,300 per year (median pay) $16.73 per hour, or $34,800 per year (median pay)
Expected national job growth, 2019-29 (BLS 2020) 7 percent 19 percent
Anticipated number of new positions created, 2019-29 (BLS 2020) 221,900 139,200
Degree requirements Aspiring RNs must possess a diploma, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree from a program approved by the licensing board in their state; this is generally a licensing prerequisite of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing to become an RN. To become a certified medical assistant through the American Association of Medical Assistants, an individual must hold a degree from a medical assisting program that the Commission has accredited on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Degrees available

An individual aspiring to work as an RN has three options:

  • Complete a nursing diploma offered by a hospital, which may take up to three years
  • Obtain an associate degree (ADN), which may take two to three years
  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree (BSN), which generally takes four years
An associate or bachelor’s degree in a program accredited by the CAAHEP or ABHES can lead to eligibility for certification. A master’s degree in medical assisting may also prove beneficial.
Program details Nursing degree programs heavily focus on biology, anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology; depending on the program, students may spend practical time in a hospital or non-hospital setting. A medical assisting program may take one to two years (or more, in the case of a bachelor’s degree) and generally require lab classes and clinical experience.
School accreditation To take the NCLEX exam to become a licensed RN, one must complete a program approved by the state where they hope to work; before enrolling in a program, it is recommended to contact their state board of nursing for more information. The two most recognized accreditation entities for undergraduate nursing programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). An aspiring medical assistant must obtain a degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). To be eligible for certification, the AAMA states that prospective certified medical assistants must possess a degree from a program accredited by a body recognized by the United States Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Five schools that offer in-person programs The following five schools offer programs in nursing on campus: The following five schools offer programs in medical assisting on campus:
Five schools that offer online programs The following five schools offer undergraduate programs in nursing online: The following five schools offer programs in medical assisting online:
Certification Some organizations exist that offer certifications in nursing, including the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) and the National Certification Corporation (NCC). The National Board of Medical Examiners administers the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination.
Licensing To become an RN, candidates must pass the NCLEX to become licensed registered nurses. The RN credential is awarded by the board of nursing in each state. Licensing for CMAs varies based on the state; however, certification through AAMA is likely a prerequisite for licensure in all areas. Candidates who pass the exam earn the CMA AAMA credential.
Eligibility To be eligible to take the NCLEX, candidates must first apply for Authorization to Test (ATT) through the nursing regulatory body (NRB). Approved candidates receive ATT notification via email and have a 90-day testing window to take the exam. Graduates of medical assisting programs accredited by CAAHEP or ABHES are eligible to take the CMA exam offered by the AAMA. There are three categories of eligibility pathways for recent graduates, non-recent graduates, and CMAs seeking recertification.
Testing The NCLEX exam is computer adaptive and must be completed in five hours. The CMA exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions in 40-minute segments.
Re-certification Depending on the state, RNs may be required to complete a certain amount of hours of continuing education (e.g., 30 hours of continuing education in California within two years) to retain their licensure. CMA (AAMA) Recertification is required every 60 months, and continuing education credits are a prerequisite for this process.
Specializations RNs have the option to focus on several different specialties, including the following:
  • Endocrinology
  • Orthopedics
  • Cardiac nursing
  • Case management
  • Critical care
  • Dialysis
  • Emergency and trauma
  • Forensics
  • Genetics
CMAs may specialize in administrative or clinical tasks or specific fields of medicine such as chiropractic medicine, obstetrics, podiatry, or others
Practice framework Because the work environment for registered nurses can vary, the practice framework will not always be the same. For example, RNs who work in a nursing home will generally work individually and perform required tasks for resident patients. A similar practice is likely for RNs who work in educational institutions. However, RNs who work in a hospital or doctor’s office typically work as part of a larger team, alongside other nurses, doctors, and additional healthcare personnel. CMAs consistently work as part of a larger group; their primary responsibility is to help medical personnel and patients, either through the completion of clinical or administrative tasks.
Skills required for success To succeed, RNs should possess the following characteristics:
  • Compassion
  • Attention to detail
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Critical thinking abilities
  • Organizational abilities
  • Physical stamina
  • Emotional stability
Certified medical assistants should have solid interpersonal skills, be very detail-oriented, and have a high degree of patience. Of course, CMAs must also have a comprehensive grasp of medical terminology, human anatomy, and related subjects.
Common practice settings Registered nurses may find employment in various settings, from physicians’ offices to public or private hospitals and nursing homes. Of course, some registered nurses may even find work in schools, jails or prisons, military bases, or other locations. The work environment of a CMA may vary throughout their career, although it will generally be in a hospital, clinic, or another healthcare facility.
Rachel Drummond
Rachel Drummond Writer

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).