Medical Assistant vs Registered Nurse: What are the Differences?

Medical Assistant vs Registered Nurse: What are the Differences?

Both medical assistants and nurses play an important role in the healthcare system. If you are considering working in the medical field, you’ll want to know the advantages and disadvantages of each career.

Medical assistants and registered nurses must both go through specialized training and education to pass a certification exam. Some of their duties may overlap, as they both work directly with patients.

However, there are key differences between certified medical assistants and registered nurses, including their scope of responsibility, duties, required education, and job expectations. This article will examine the pros and cons of each position, so that you have the information to make a good decision about which career you wish to pursue.

Medical Assistant vs Nurse

What are the similarities and differences between these two healthcare roles?

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants work under the license of a physician in a medical office or clinic, supporting doctors and other medical professionals. Some medical assistants work in outpatient care, hospitals, and ambulatory care facilities. Medical assistants are trained to perform both clinical and administrative duties, such as preparing patients for a physician examination, taking vitals, and scheduling patient appointments. A medical assistant cannot give medical advice on their own or act autonomously – they work under a physician’s supervision.

What is a Registered Nurse?

Registered nurses perform clinical tasks, helping doctors and other members of a medical facility team. Their work is usually done directly with patients. An RN may oversee other members of a medical team, such as Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN), medical assistants (MA), Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA), and Home Health Aides.

Registered Nurses may perform physical examinations, administer medications, and provide health counseling to patients. Registered Nurses usually work in hospitals, clinics, assisted living facilities, and medical treatment centers.

Differences in Roles and Responsibilities

Though both medical assistants and nurses work in medical facilities, there are differences in their roles and responsibilities.

Medical Assistant Duties and Responsibilities

A medical assistant is critically important to the smooth operation of a doctor’s office, hospital or medical clinic, and his or her duties are split between administrative and clinical responsibilities.

Here are some of the administrative duties a medical assistant may be responsible for:

  • Welcoming patients and answering the phone
  • Setting appointments for patients
  • Overseeing patients’ medical records
  • Inputting and supervising patients’ insurance information
  • Organizing necessary information, such as hospital admissions and laboratory services
  • Handling patient correspondence
  • Moving patient information from paper records to electronic health records (EHR)

These are some of the clinical duties a medical assistant may be tasked with completing:

  • Preparing patients for medical examinations
  • Writing down medical histories
  • Measuring vital signs, like blood pressure
  • Drawing blood for testing
  • Removing sutures and changing dressings
  • Performing basic laboratory exams
  • Helping physicians with medical examinations
  • Administering injections or giving medications per physician’s instructions and as regulated by state law
  • Instructing patients about medications and special diets they may need

In smaller to medium sized medical offices, it is common for a medical assistant to perform both administrative and clinical duties. Though in larger hospitals, a medical assistant may specialize in either clinical or administrative work. Because medical assistants take patients’ personal information, they must also be able to keep that information private.

Ultimately, what a medical assistant does day to day depends on the location of the hospital or medical office, the state laws in that location, and the needs of the medical assistant’s employer.

Registered Nursing Duties and Responsibilities

Registered nurses are almost always focused on the caring for patients directly. They may also provide oversight for other nurses, nursing assistants, and medical assistants. A registered nurse can perform many clinical tasks, including delivering medication via intravenous lines, managing advanced medication plans, and providing general patient care.

Some typical daily responsibilities of registered nurses include:

  • Administering medications to patients
  • Taking patient vitals and recording the results
  • Performing patient diagnostic tests
  • Implementing patient care plans
  • Administering medications through IVs (such as chemotherapy)
  • Monitoring patients for side effects of treatment plans
  • Administering vaccinations
  • Taking blood draws for testing
  • Talking with patients about medical treatment plans
  • Monitoring and operating medical equipment
  • Providing supervision for nursing assistants, practical nurses, vocational nurses, and nursing students
  • Assisting in some medical procedures
  • Applying catheters to patients
  • Advocating for the health and safety of patients according to a patient plan approved by a physician

Pros and Cons of Medical Assisting and Nursing

What are some of the pros and cons of being a medical assistant?

Pros of Medical Assisting

  • Short training period. Most programs are under one year.
  • Variety of daily tasks. A mixture of tasks helps prevent monotony.
  • Stable Career. Many physician’s offices need medical assistants.
  • Work Life Balance. Most medical assistants work a 9a-6p style schedule, working in private practice offices.

Cons of Medical Assisting

  • Multiple responsibilities. Medical assistants must complete a mix of clinical and administrative duties.
  • Work may be stressful. The work can be mentally and physically draining.
  • Lack of independent decision-making. Medical assistants work under the supervision of a physician, and cannot give medical advice.
  • Salary lower than physician’s assistants or registered nurses.

What are the upsides and downsides of working as a nurse?

Pros of Registered Nursing

  • Good salary. Registered nurses earn significantly more than medical assistants.
  • More autonomy. RNs can do things like write patient care plans, which is beyond what a medical assistant can do.
  • Patient-focused work. Registered nurses do very little administrative work, most of the work is clinical.
  • Good job outlook. Registered nurses are projected to have job growth of 6% between 2021 and 2031 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. [1]

Cons of Registered Nursing

  • Long hours may be required. Many nurses must work 12-hour shifts.
  • High educational requirements. RNs usually need an associates or bachelor’s degree in nursing from an approved program, in addition to passing a certification exam.
  • Many responsibilities. Registered nurses have clinical duties and often oversee other nursing staff.
  • Fast-paced work environment. Many RNs work in hospitals, with others working in clinic, outpatient care, or assisted living homes.

Salary and Pay for Medical Assistants vs Registered Nurses

According to BLS data from 2021, in the US, medical assistants average around $37,190 per year, while registered nurses make about $77,600 per year. The specific hourly rate and annual salary will vary by city and region, and the current job market.

Medical Assistant Salary Data, May 2021 (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)[1]

Top paying states for Medical Assistants:

State Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage
Washington $ 22.75 $ 47,320
District of Columbia $ 22.45 $ 46,690
Alaska $ 22.30 $ 46,390
California $ 21.53 $ 44,780
Massachusetts $ 21.25 $ 44,200

Top paying metropolitan areas for Medical Assistants:

Metropolitan area Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $ 28.21 $ 58,670
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $ 26.41 $ 54,930
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $ 25.90 $ 53,870
Santa Rosa, CA $ 25.74 $ 53,530
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA $ 24.78 $ 51,530
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA $ 24.43 $ 50,820
Napa, CA $ 24.27 $ 50,480
Fairbanks, AK $ 22.62 $ 47,060
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA $ 22.41 $ 46,620
Olympia-Tumwater, WA $ 21.95 $ 45,650

Registered Nurse Salary Data, May 2021 (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)[1]

Top paying states for Registered Nurses:

State Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage
California $ 59.62 $ 124,000
Hawaii $ 51.22 $ 106,530
Oregon $ 47.42 $ 98,630
District of Columbia $ 47.38 $ 98,540
Alaska $ 46.74 $ 97,230

Top paying metropolitan areas for Registered Nurses:

Metropolitan area Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $ 74.63 $ 155,230
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $ 72.90 $ 151,640
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $ 70.37 $ 146,360
Santa Rosa, CA $ 68.00 $ 141,440
Napa, CA $ 67.15 $ 139,680
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA $ 67.11 $ 139,590
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA $ 65.14 $ 135,490
Salinas, CA $ 62.75 $ 130,520
Modesto, CA $ 61.41 $ 127,730
Hanford-Corcoran, CA $ 60.00 $ 124,790

Medical Assistant & Nurses Job Growth Comparison

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses are projected to have job growth of 6% from 2021 to 2031. [1]

Medical assistants are projected to have job growth of 16% from 2021 to 2031 according to the BLS.

Job Position Projected Job Growth 2021-2031 Total Jobs Added, Projected, 2021-2031
Medical Assistant 16% 117,800
Registered Nurse 6% 195,400

Education Requirements: Medical Assistant vs Nursing

Medical assistant training programs from accredited educational institutions usually range from 9 to 24 months. Medical assistants are not legally required to be certified in California, but bypassing formal training in an approved program is not practical, as most employers look for certified medical assistants.

Registered nurses usually have and associate’s or bachelor’s degree from an accredited nursing program, and must pass a certification exam. Most RN nursing programs are two to four years.

Can Medical Assistant Training Lead to a Nursing Career?

Medical Assistants

It is possible for certified medical assistants to become registered nurses, but this will require additional training from an accredited educational institution. Most nursing school programs are two to four years. Registered nurses must study pathophysiology, pharmacology, and several other medical subjects, and then pass the corresponding certification exams.

One upside to becoming a medical assistant is you will be able to start work much sooner, as most training programs are less than one year in length.

Which Medical Career is Right for You?

Only you can decide which career to pursue – medical assistant or nurse. There are pros and cons to both. If you want to have a medical career, and do not have the bandwidth to study nursing for two to four years, becoming a medical assistant may be the best choice. Both careers focus on working closely with patients in a clinical setting. Registered Nurses do earn more than medical assistants, but must complete more training, and they are tasked with more responsibility. Medical assistants, on average, have a more predictable schedule, while registered nurses may be required to work long arduous shifts by employers.

Why Choose Campus for Your Medical Assistant Training?

The Medical Assistant Program at Campus, formerly known as MTI College, prepares students to become a NCMA certified medical assistant in about 36 weeks. This program is a hybrid program, with most of the coursework completed online, with required clinical studies held in person at our location in Sacramento.

Our medical assisting students learn medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and pharmacology. Each student in the Medical Assisting program is required to finish a 200‐hour unpaid off‐campus Medical Assisting Externship along with standard course requirements to graduate. To become certified as a Medical Assistant, the classroom work can be completed, followed by a 4-week externship. This means you can become certified as a Medical Assistant in as little as 36 weeks.

If you would like more information on the Medical Assisting program at Campus, fill out the form on this page, or contact our friendly Admissions team today!

[1] Note: The data provided above are from a source unaffiliated with Campus, formerly known as MTI College, are for informational purposes only and represent the employment field as a whole. They are not solely specific to Campus graduates and, by providing the above information, Campus makes no representation, direct or implied, or opinion regarding employability.