Medical Assistant vs. Nurse (Differences Explained)

If you’re thinking about becoming a medical assistant, you might be wondering, is there a difference between medical assistants and nurses, and if there are differences, what are they? You’ve come to the right place as this post dives deep into the differences between nurses vs. medical assistants.

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That said, when you go to a hospital or clinic as a patient, it can be difficult for the layperson to tell the difference between the nurses and medical assistants on staff.

Professionals within both healthcare positions, after all, tend to spend a great deal of time with patients, from taking vitals and updating patient records to educating patients about treatments, medications, and courses of care.

But while there are some definite similarities to the healthcare outsider, several differences exist between nursing and medical assisting. The differences begin with education, certification, and licensing requirements, then continue all the way through roles, responsibilities, capabilities, and focus.

In this post, our goal is to highlight the differences between medical assistants and nurses, so you most confidently understand what it takes to establish and maintain a successful career as either a medical assistant or a registered nurse.

Medical Assistant vs. Nurse

Although medical assistants and nurses work in the healthcare field, there are major differences when it comes to the responsibilities they perform and the educational requirements to become one. Let’s explore the differences below.

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants work alongside physicians within multiple types of healthcare settings – private practices, outpatient clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities – for the benefit and optimization of patient services and care. In doing so, medical assistants are cross-trained to perform both administrative and clinical tasks.

Administratively, a typical medical assistant’s day may include front-office tasks like answering phones, scheduling patient appointments, updating medical records, arranging labs and referrals, and general clerical work. Clinically, medical assistants may also escort patients to exam rooms, take vitals, assist doctors during examinations, perform on-site lab tests, and educate patients about treatments, medications, and course of care.

In other words, medical assistants are required to juggle a lot of different tasks. In doing so, they work closely with nearly everyone on staff within a medical clinic or other healthcare facilities: physicians, nurses, office managers, billing professionals, lab staff, and patients.

What is a Nurse?

Like medical assistants, nurses also perform some administrative tasks, but their primary focus is on patient care. As highly educated and licensed medical professionals, registered nurses can work more independently than medical assistants, allowing them to perform a wider range of duties.

While they both provide patient care under the direction, for example, registered nurses (RNs) are able to write patient care plans, an important task that lies outside the scope of duties allowed by medical assistants. RNs can also perform more complicated procedures and diagnostic tests, administer advanced medications such as chemotherapy and advocate for immediate and long-term patient needs.

In addition, registered nurses can also obtain specialized training and certifications to work in such areas as oncology, geriatrics, labor and delivery, and so on.

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What Are the Roles and Responsibilities for Medical Assistants vs. Nurses?

Again, the differences in responsibilities and roles between medical assistants and nurses vary based on the depth of patient care and administrative expectations.

Becoming an effective medical assistant, for example, requires that you possess a substantial toolbox of skills and abilities that you utilize on a daily basis. Such skills allow medical assistants to take on roles that can be broken down into two categories: administrative roles and clinical roles.

Administrative or “front-office” skills are required which allow medical assistants to perform the following tasks:

  • Schedule patient appointments and referrals
  • Update and organize medical charts
  • Call prescriptions into local pharmacies
  • Track and order clinic/office inventory
  • General computer proficiency

Hospitals, clinics, and private practices expect medical assistants to have the skills they need to effectively perform the following clinical or “back-office” tasks, as well:

  • Record and update patient records and medical histories
  • Take and record vital signs
  • Prepare patients for physician exams
  • Provide information and instructions to patients
  • Assist with medical exams, treatments, and procedures
  • Clean exam rooms and sterilize equipment
  • Collect lab specimens
  • Notify patients of lab results after review from the medical provider
  • Administer immunizations
  • Remove sutures and change dressings
  • Instruct patients about follow-up procedures, medications, special diets, etc.
  • Perform ECGs

By comparison, while it’s vital that registered nurses have the administrative skills to keep accurate notes and records related to individual patients, their day-to-day tasks are more patient-focused than those of medical assistants. Here are some responsibilities of nurses:

  • Recording and updating patient records and medical histories
  • Taking and recording patient vitals
  • Evaluate patient test results
  • Performing catheterization
  • Administering treatments, medications, and vaccines
  • Performing diagnostic tests
  • Educating patients about disease/illness management
  • Establishing patient care plans
  • Advocating for patient health and treatments
  • Educating patients and communities about medical issues, treatments, and care

Work Environment For Nurses vs. Medical Assistants– Where Do they work?

You will likely find both medical assistants and registered nurses working in similar settings, such as private practices, hospitals, and outpatient centers. After all, when it comes to assisting physicians in ensuring optimal care for patients of all types, both medical assistants and registered nurses play important roles in improving the patient experience, their levels of short- and long-term care, and the general efficiency of an overall healthcare facility.

As such, both medical assistants and registered nurses often share a common work environment … at least when it comes to clinical, “back-office” type work related directly to patient care. The greatest difference between the two careers involves the level of care each is able to provide to patients. Specifically, medical assistants tend to spend more time performing scheduling, clerical and billing tasks, while nurses spend most of their time focusing on patient care.

Education Requirements for Medical Assistants vs. Nurses

To become both a medical assistant and a nurse requires different levels of specialized education and training. Requirements for each can vary by state, but generally, becoming a registered nurse takes longer and requires more career-specific training than earning a medical assistant position.

In fact, one need not have a specialized diploma nor have a special license or certification to become a medical assistant in many states, including Florida. It’s possible to become trained as a medical assistant in the clinic while working side-by-side with a licensed physician. However, as professional bandwidth within a hospital or clinic is a valuable commodity, most employers require medical assistant applicants to have completed specialized training in medical assisting programs at an accredited school, college, or university.

Becoming a registered nurse, in contrast, requires students to have completed an associate’s degree program at a minimum. Some employers, however, prefer to hire nurses who have earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Either way, registered nurses must also pass the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), then apply for (and be granted) licensing in their state prior to practicing their craft. Before a license is granted, nurses also need to pass a background check which is performed when a person applies to take the NCLEX exam.

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The Length of Time it Takes to Become a Nurse vs. Medical Assistant

The amount of time it takes to complete and graduate from a medical assistant training program depends mostly on which school and program you choose to enroll in. While programs at vocational schools and career colleges (including Florida Career College) can take just a few months, other programs, such as those at community colleges and universities, can take longer.

FCC offers a Medical Assistant Training Program that can be completed in as few as 10 months. Our hybrid program includes online education and classes, hands-on, in-person training at our campus’ medical assistant labs, and real-world externship experience at a local practice or clinic. When finished with all classes, graduates receive a diploma signifying the completion of the program.

In general, though, it takes much less time to complete a medical assistant training program than to become trained and licensed as a registered nurse. How much time does it take to become a registered nurse? Again, it depends largely on the education you get and the program at which you enroll.

Technically, it’s possible to become educated and trained as a nurse through an associate’s degree program, which can take up to two years. However, many employers prefer nurses who have completed a bachelor’s degree nursing program, which can take four years to complete. Regardless of educational path, however, graduation from such a program isn’t the final step.

Licensing and Certification

Licensing and certification requirements for medical assistants and nurses couldn’t be more different. While medical assistants can technically find employment with no certification whatsoever (depending on state requirements and employer preferences), nurses must pass a licensure examination then apply for professional licensing within the state in which they will practice.

However, many medical assistants find that becoming certified or registered medical assistants can improve their professional value while also helping them stand out in a competitive jobs market. As a result, several potential certifications exist for medical assistants, including the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) designation by the American Association of Medical Assistants. Another certification available to medical assistants is the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant Certification (CCMA) through the National Healthcareer Association.

Types of Medical Assistants

Graduating from a medical assistant program at an accredited school, college, or university is just the first significant step in a career of endless learning and training. Once one the job earning experience in a broad healthcare field, medical assistants may pursue various levels of specialization in order to make their career more personally and professionally rewarding.

It could also lead some medical assistants to seek a medical assisting career in a particular area of healthcare, such as pediatrics, chiropractic, geriatric care, mental health, OB-GYN, cardiology, and so on.

By continually learning and making savvy career choices, one’s long-term journey within the world of medical assisting can truly meld with one’s professional passions and aspirations.

Should You Become a Medical Assistant?

If you have long wanted to have a career in the medical field or you simply just love helping people and think a career in the healthcare field may be right for you, pursuing a career in the medical field may be your answer. Not only is the need for medical assistants growing, but it’s possible to train for and become an entry-level medical assistant within a year’s time.

How to Become a Medical Assistant?

Depending on which state you live in (state regulations and requirements vary), there are two main ways of becoming a medical assistant:

  1. On-the-Job Training with a Physician: Most states do not require medical assistants to attend a school or graduate from a specific program, so long as a physician is willing to take them under their wings and train them on the job.
  2. Complete a Medical Assistant Training Program: As time and bandwidth are valuable commodities in the healthcare world, on-the-job training can be rare. Most join the medical assisting field by enrolling in and graduating from a medical assistant training program at an accredited school, college or university.

Reputable medical assistant programs like that at Florida Career College typically include a mix of classroom education, hands-on lab training, and on-the-job experience development through externships. As a result, FCC students graduate from the program career-ready with the necessary knowledge and skills to earn an entry-level medical assistant position.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

The length of time it takes to complete a medical assistant diploma program depends on the school, college, or university you attend and the program in which you enroll. While medical assistant programs at vocational schools and career colleges (including FCC) can take just a few months, other programs – those, say, at community colleges and universities – may take longer.

At Florida College, our Medical Assistant training program can be completed, and earn a diploma in as few as 10 months. The program will provide you with the knowledge, skills, and hands-on training necessary to begin a new and rewarding career as a medical assistant.

Become a Medical Assistant at Florida Career College

At Florida Career College, we offer our Medical Assistant training program at all of our campuses. By providing a mix of online classroom instruction, hands-on lab training, and clinical experience through our externship program, students learn and become confident in the skills they need to excel as medical assistants in the real world.

Other advantages of choosing to enroll in FCC’s Medical Assistant training program include:

  • Complete the program and earn a diploma in as few as 10 months
  • A curriculum is established to match employers’ needs
  • No high school diploma? You still have educational options
  • Our instructors have experience in the medical field
  • FCC’s hybrid model allows for greater flexibility
  • Our programs provide hands-on training
  • FCC’s externship programs offer real-world experience with potential employers
  • Our Career Services department will help you find a position
  • Financial aid is available to those who qualify
  • We believe in giving people second chances in life
  • FCC College cares and celebrates student success

For more information about FCC and our Medical Assistant diploma program, simply contact our admissions team, and an assigned representative will help determine your personal application needs. Everyone’s background is different, and it is our goal to help ensure qualified students are granted the opportunity to strive to their personal career goals.

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. What does a medical assistant do?

Medical assistants work alongside physicians in private practices, outpatient clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities to benefit patient services and care. As such, medical assistants are cross-trained to perform administrative and clinical duties in nature.

2. Is a medical assistant the same as a nurse?

While some tasks performed by both medical assistants and nurses are similar, patient care is the primary focus of a registered nurse. In addition, as highly educated and licensed medical professionals, registered nurses can work more independently than medical assistants, allowing them to perform a wider range of duties.

3. What are the requirements to become a medical assistant?

Medical assistants must have earned their high school diplomas or equivalents, then complete a medical assistant training program from an accredited post-secondary school such as FCC. That said, at FCC, students can earn their high school diploma while training to become medical assistants. So, even if you don’t have your high school diploma, you should not be discouraged as we have options.