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What is a CNA? The complete guide to a career as a certified nursing assistant

At a glance

  • CNA stands for certified nursing assistant.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of nursing assistants is projected to grow 8% from 2020 to 2030, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.
  • Providing patient hygiene, feeding patients and getting supplies are some of the common responsibilities of a CNA.
  • CNAs work in a number of healthcare environments, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers and long-term care facilities.

Quality healthcare relies on a team of professionals working together to provide care. From the physicians who diagnose patients to the nurses and nursing assistants who administer the care, it is truly a group effort.

Forming a crucial part of this team, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) play a supporting role in this complex operation. Responsible for a number of critical duties, CNAs gain a broad perspective on patient care in a number of settings. It’s no wonder that work as a nursing assistant can help prepare healthcare providers for more advanced nursing roles.

In this article, we’ll examine the ins-and-outs of certified nursing assistants: what they are and what they do. By the end, we hope to provide a deeper understanding of this important job and its place in the lives of patients.

What is a CNA?

CNA stands for certified nursing assistant.

It’s important to remember that a CNA is not a nurse. As a nursing assistant, they are usually overseen by registered nurses (RNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs.) Though they often work side-by-side with RNs and LPNs, CNAs generally do not require the same level of education, licensure or certification. Therefore, their responsibilities are not as “high stakes” as those expected of nurses, such as administering medicine.

Many students in nursing programs work as CNAs to gain hands-on experience in a healthcare environment. For these students, a nursing assistant position may be an entry-level step toward a healthcare career.

What does a CNA do?

Though CNAs are not responsible for making life-and-death decisions on behalf of patients, they perform many important functions, some of which are:

  • Cleaning patients and changing bedding
  • Supply requisition and management
  • Patient feeding
  • Wound dressing
  • Preparing hospital rooms for admission
  • Alerting nurses to emergencies
  • Taking measurements on how much a patient is eating and drinking
  • Repositioning patients in bed
  • Helping patients into or out of wheelchairs
  • Listening to patients and reporting information to nurses
  • Measuring basic vital signs, like temperature and blood pressure

These responsibilities may seem relatively low stakes, but they are important. Patients often see their nursing assistants every day, usually more often than they see their physicians. This relationship can form an important emotional foundation to benefit in recovery.

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Where do CNAs work?

You can find CNAs in nearly every type of healthcare setting, from hospitals to patients’ homes to clinics to nursing homes. This variety is matched by the variety of potential patients. Infants, young children, combat veterans, cancer patients, the developmentally disabled and the elderly all receive care from certified nursing assistants.

The particular requirements of their place of work will demand specific responsibilities of each CNA. Nursing assistants working with the elderly may be tasked with testing their patients’ memory and reporting their findings to specialists. A CNA in a rehabilitation clinic may help patients in their recovery by assisting in bathing, grooming and nutrition.

In short, nursing assistants work just about anywhere that healthcare is administered.

How to become a CNA

Work as a CNA generally does not require a degree in nursing, making it an attractive option for those looking to get their feet wet in a medical profession. CNA programs generally require a high school diploma or GED for entrance.

Nursing assistant work generally requires passing a state-approved education program, as well as the CNA certification exam administered by the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program (NNAAP).  This exam can be taken in a written or oral format.

CNAs also generally receive on-the-job training to prepare them for work in a particular facility with the kinds of patients that facility cares for.  

CNA salary and job outlook

Median annual salary: According to May 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual range for CNA salaries is between $23,880 and $44,240. Pay is generally higher in government and hospital positions. A CNA salary is generally lower in retirement communities and home healthcare services.

Job outlook: According to BLS, employment of nursing is projected to grow 8% from 2020 to 2030, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.

BLS links this projected job growth with the needs of an aging population, as well as an increased demand for home care for patients.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Why become a CNA?

As stated, CNAs perform crucial duties in the lives of patients. They have the potential to make a direct, meaningful contribution to positive patient outcomes. Here are some reasons why many choose to become a CNA:

1.    Entry-level work

CNA employment has less-strict prerequisites, making it attractive for those just out of high school or college without a healthcare-related education. With a high school degree alone, students can enter a CNA program to prepare for employment.

Generally speaking, CNA programs can be completed much faster than a traditional degree. Some programs can even be completed in four to six weeks, fast-tracking the process of entering the job market.

2.    In-demand work

As we saw from BLS data, CNA employment is projected to grow in the coming years. In an economy full of uncertainty, the critical functions that CNAs perform are likely to remain healthcare necessities.

Of course, it’s not a sure thing. According to BLS, Medicaid and Medicare cuts may negatively affect job projections for certified nursing assistants. That said, the projections look strong for CNA employment.

3.    Hands-on experience

Healthcare offers a number of careers, each with its own specialties and responsibilities. The time needed to pursue such a career is a commitment many are not ready to take on yet.

CNA work gives broad, hands-on experience in healthcare and with the personal care of patients. The variety of responsibilities and work settings make this work a great avenue to learn different aspects of healthcare. By working under RNs and LPNs, CNAs can learn from those who are further ahead in their career. This can be important experience when deciding on a specialty or career path.

4.    Making an impact

Through their work in residential care facilities and in home healthcare CNAs can make a large impact on patients’ lives. From checking vital signs to providing hygiene, CNAs make sure patients have the basics they need to heal.

Especially in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, CNAs often see their patients every day. That can make a real impact and provide a human face to treatment and recovery. If you are looking for work that has the potential to be emotionally rewarding, then work as a CNA is a career path to consider.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about CNAs!

What is the difference between a CNA and a medical assistant (MA)?

While both CNAs and medical assistants (MAs) both assist in medical settings, they are not exactly the same. Medical assistants have more responsibility to assess and evaluate patients, running tests and assisting physicians in administering treatment. CNAs have a more personal, day-to-day interaction with patients, administering the direct care duties mentioned previously.

What is the difference between a CNA and an RN?

It is important to underline again that CNAs are not nurses. Though CNAs may work under or alongside RNs (registered nurses) in the same healthcare settings, their responsibilities and training are very different.

RNs perform more in-depth patient assessments than CNAs have the training for. RNs work more directly with physicians, often administering the prescribed treatment directly to the patient. CNAs may be responsible for basic assessments and basic patient care, but RNs generally provide the more critical services.

Another main difference between a CNA and an RN is the education required. While many can pursue CNA certification with a high school degree alone, work as an RN generally requires completion of a nursing program, as well as passing the NCLEX-RN exam.

What is the difference between CNA certification and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)?

CNA certification can generally be completed in a few months, with a high school diploma or GED as the only prerequisite. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is much more involved, and sometimes completed after or amid experience as a registered nurse. To be an RN, a healthcare professional must have already graduated from an approved nursing program, passed the NCLEX and be licensed in their state. Completion of a BSN program can prepare students to oversee a team of nurses, and therefore prepares students for leadership positions well beyond CNA certification.

CNAs clearly have an important role to play in healthcare settings. For many, it is the first step toward a rewarding, meaningful and in-demand career making a positive impact on patients.

Learn more about nursing degrees from University of Phoenix! From bachelor’s degrees to doctorates, there are many paths to choose from.