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

Both certified medical assistants (CMAs) and registered nurses (RNs) perform tasks that are truly vital to the healthcare industry. CMAs and RNs assist licensed doctors and other medical personnel, and are often responsible for the general treatment and care of a variety of patients.

While there are certain similarities between these two positions, there are also a number of stark differences. Some of the factors that separate these two careers include specific day-to-day responsibilities, workplace environments, and the prerequisites necessary to work in this capacity.

For those trying to decide between becoming either a CMA or an RN, it is important to fully understand the scope of both fields before making a final choice. The following overview outlines the differences, similarities, and overlaps between both fields, as well as a side-by-side comparison chart.

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 a variety of 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. In a clinical setting, a CMA may be preparing patients and administering medication, whereas in an administrative setting, a CMA may be creating the staff schedule 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, which may include 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), while RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) exam, administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

To better understand these distinct career paths, the reference guide below distinguishes between CMAs and RNs.

Side-by-Side Comparison: CMAs and RNs

Registered Nurse Certified Medical Assistant
Number practicing in the United States The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Oct. 2017) reports that 2,955,200 RNs currently work in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are currently 634-400 CMAs employed throughout the United States
Pay $32.91 per hour, or $68,450 per year (median pay) $15.17 per hour, or $31,540 per year (median pay)
Expected job growth, 2016-26 15 percent 29 percent
Anticipated number of new positions created, 2016-26 437,000 184,600
Degree requirements Aspiring RNs must possess a diploma, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree from a program that is 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 In order 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 has been accredited by the Commission 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 generally 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
Either an associate or bachelor’s degree in a program accredited by the CAAHEP or ABHES can lead to eligibility for certification, although a master’s degree in medical assisting may also prove beneficial
Program details Nursing degree programs have a heavy focus on biology, anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology; depending on the program, students may spend practical time in a hospital or non-hospital setting, as well A medical assisting program may take one to two years (or more, in the case of a bachelor’s degree), and will generally require lab classes and clinical experience
School accreditation In order to take the NCLEX exam to become a licensed RN, one must complete a program that is 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, although 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) in order to be eligible for certification; according to AAMA, 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 A number of organizations exist that offer certifications in the field of nursing, including the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) and the National Certification Corporation (NCC) The CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination is administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners and consists of 200 multiple-choice questions
Licensing RNs must pass the NCLEX in order to obtain licensure, which is awarded by the board of nursing in each state Licensing for CMAs varies based depending on the state; however, certification through AAMA is likely a prerequisite for licensure in all areas
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 a two-year period), in order to retain their licensure CMA (AAMA) Recertification is required every 60 months, and continuing education credits are a prerequisite for this process

RNs have the option to focus on a number of 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 in 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 main responsibility is to help both medical personnel and patients, either through the completion of clinical or administrative tasks.
Skills required for success

In order 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, should be very detail-oriented, and should have a high degree of patience. Of course, CMAs must also have a comprehensive grasp on medical terminology, human anatomy, and related subjects.
Common practice settings Registered nurses may find employment in a variety of 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 other healthcare facility.