Career Comparison
June 13, 2024

Nursing vs. Medical Assistant Careers: Key Differences Explained

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Nursing vs. Medical Assistant Careers: Key Differences Explained

Becoming a registered nurse or a medical assistant is often a passion-driven decision for those who want to jump-start a career in the health care industry.

The differences between nurses and medical assistants are prominent and clear, and fortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) collects, analyzes, and showcases data on both medical assistants and registered nurses.

This nursing vs. medical assistant comparison article will show you the main differences and similarities between these two options with facts and proven statistics.  

Medical Assisting vs. Nursing: Definition and Overview

A medical assistant is a healthcare professional who assists in both clinical and administrative tasks inside medical offices, clinics, hospitals, and more.

Medical assistants work closely with other healthcare professionals operating under a license, such as physicians and nurses.

On the other hand, a nurse, or more precisely, a Registered Nurse (RN), is a licensed healthcare professional trained to provide a wide variety of medical services to patients in both administrative and medical settings. 

Most medical assisting jobs and positions do not impose licensing requirements, although this can vary by state. Nevertheless, all registered nurses must be licensed in the state they work.

Registered Nurses vs. Medical Assistants: Tasks

The scope of responsibility of medical assistants and nurses varies depending on the state (can a medical assistant give injections?).

However, as registered and licensed professionals, the scope of practice of nurses is wider than the medical assistant’s scope of responsibilities.

The BLS gathers and shows information regarding medical assistants' tasks and registered nurses’ tasks

Medical Assistant’s Tasks Registered Nurses’ Tasks
  • Measure vital signs and blood pressure.
  • Record patient history and personal information.
  • Give patient injections depending on state laws.
  • Prepare blood samples for laboratory tests.
  • Keep track of patient medical records.
  • Keep track of patient records and symptoms.
  • Observing patients and their evolution with the healthcare team.
  • Administer medications, injections, and treatments.
  • Record medical histories.
  • Set up medical plans for patient care.
  • Perform and analyze diagnostic tests.
  • Operate and monitor medical equipment.
  • Educate patients on how to manage illness and perform treatments at home.
  • Consult, collaborate, and work with other medical professionals, such as doctors, other nurses, and even medical assistants.

The tasks of both nurses and medical assistants vary depending on their specialty and work setting.

For example, administrative medical assistants will probably focus more on administrative tasks, such as scheduling patient appointments, than clinical tasks.

Nurses, however, have more responsibilities and tasks than certified medical assistants when they are assigned to strictly medical positions. 

Nurses vs. Medical Assistants Work Environment

Medical assistants can work in a wide variety of both administrative and medical environments. 

The BLS recognizes that the tasks (administrative or clinical duties) assigned to either medical or nursing assistants are determined by their work environment, type of patients, and nature of the setting.

These are the most relevant statistics for medical assistants’ work environments 

  • There were over 750,000 medical assistants job positions in the US in 2021.
  • Most medical assistants work (58 percent) in physicians' offices.
  • Around 15 percent of medical assistant positions are in private, public, and local healthcare facilities, such as hospitals and clinics.
  • 9 percent of medical assistants work in outpatient care centers, and 4 percent of them work in offices of chiropractors.
  • Medical assistants who work assisting physicians in a healthcare facility work full-time.

The work environment for nurses is similar overall, but it’s more focused on clinical tasks rather than administrative duties:

  • There were over 3.1 million registered nurses jobs in the US in 2021.
  • Most registered nurses work in private, public, or state hospitals (60 percent of them), where they coordinate patient care, write patient care plans, and more.
  • 18 percent of registered nurses work in ambulatory healthcare services.
  • 6 percent of registered nurses work in government centers. Likewise, 6 percent of all nurses work in residential care facilities and nursing homes in basic patient care duties.
  • Around 3 percent of registered nurses work in educational services (educating patients or aspiring nurses in private, public, and state facilities).
  • Most nurses work in different shifts to provide round-the-clock coverage in outpatient clinics, assisted living facilities, hospitals, and more.

Medical Assistant vs. Nurse: Skills

There are a series of important qualities of medical assistants that a certified medical assistant should have in order to climb the career ladder.

According to the BLS, analytical skills help in tasks such as scheduling appointments and recording patient history. Likewise, interpersonal and technical skills help medical assistants discuss, analyze and deal with patient symptoms effectively. 

Medical assistants must be detail-oriented to ensure the accuracy of medical measures and patient examinations.

On the other hand, the qualities and skills of registered nurses are more related to “the human side” of healthcare activities.

Having critical thinking, great communication skills, and emotional stability help nurses in tasks such as preparing patients for treatment procedures, dealing with emotionally-heavy environments, administering medications, and determining the right path to follow for patients depending on their needs.

Nurses need also to have the physical stamina to lift patients and handle several hours of under-pressure shifts. In most cases, registered nurses take care of multiple patients during their shift, which requires them to be ready at all times.

Medical Assistants vs. Nurses: Education

Most medical assistants have a postsecondary education award, such as a common certificate. The educational requirements for medical assistants are not formal in most states, which is why some employers prefer to hire medical assistants who complete these programs.

Programs for medical assistants are often available in community colleges, vocational schools, and universities. They normally take between 1 and 2 years to complete, although two-year courses are often credited as an associate’s degree program.

After becoming a certified medical assistant by completing an accredited program, most duties are learned through on-the-job training. Some jobs require medical assistants to be proficient with more administrative skills rather than clinical tasks. 

For instance, insurance companies see medical assistants as valuable assets due to their knowledge of medical terminology and other factors.

Medical assistants with CMA Certifications must renew their licenses after a few years by completing continuing education credits.   

The educational requirements for registered nurses are greater and more complex, according to the BLS.

There are three paths to becoming a registered nurse:

  1. Get a bachelor’s degree in registered nursing.
  2. Get an associate degree in nursing.
  3. Get a diploma in an approved nursing program.

After getting a valid nursing program or degree, aspiring nurses need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) exam to get their nursing license.

Medical Assistant vs. Nurse: Salary

If you wonder how much medical assistants or how much nurses make yearly, then it is worth noting that medical assistant salaries are lower on average than registered nurses' salaries.  

The median annual wage for medical assistants is around $38,000, whereas the median annual wage for registered nurses is $77,600.

The salary of a medical assistant vs. the salary of a registered nurse varies depending on the industry they work in:

Median Annual Wage for Registered Nurses by Industry Median Annual Wage for Medical Assistants by Industry
  • Government medical industries: $85,600.
  • Private, state, and public hospitals: $78,070.
  • Ambulatory services: $76,700.
  • Nursing care facilities: $72,400.
  • Educational services: $61,780.
  • Outpatient Care Centers: $38,270.
  • Private, state, and public hospitals: $37,800.
  • Physician offices: $37,150.
  • Chiropractic offices: $30,000.

It is worth noting that nurses are often required to be available during holidays, weekends, and night shifts, whereas most medical assistants just work full-time shifts (40 hours per week) during standard work hours. 

Top Paying States for Medical Assistants vs. Nurses

As with requirements to work in different states for both nurses and medical assistants, the salaries of healthcare professionals vary depending on their location.

Medical assistants have a higher than average annual mean wage in the following states:

  1. Washington - $47,320.
  2. Alaska - $46,300.
  3. California - $44,700.
  4. Massachusetts - $44,200. 

Similarly, these are the top 4 paying states for registered nurses in the United States of America (annual mean wage):

  1. California - $124,000.
  2. Hawaii - $106,500.
  3. Oregon - $98,630.
  4. Alaska - $97,000.

Consequently, it is clear that medical assistant vs. registered nurse salaries are calculated based on industry, job tasks, work environment, and state location.

Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse: Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that employment for medical assistants will grow 16 percent from 2021 to 2031, which represents around 123,000 new openings for medical assistants each year.

This makes the medical assistant path one of the fastest-growing occupations for all occupations in the U.S. economy.

Employment of registered nurses will grow 6 percent from 2021 to 2021, which represents around 203,000 new openings for registered nurses each year over the course of a decade.

There are more registered nurses than medical assistants in the United States, and most job openings are expected to take place to replace retiring nurses or workers who transfer to different occupations. 

Wrapping Up: Differences and Similarities Between Medical Assistants and Nurses

Statistics and official research support what we know about the main differences between medical assistants and registered nurses.

Let’s take a look at 5 crucial points that summarize this medical assistant vs. registered nurse job overview comparison guide:

  1. The scope of responsibility of registered nurses is more complex and varied than medical assistants. 
  2. Medical assistants can become certified professionals by completing 1-year programs, whereas registered nurses need a bachelor's or associate's degree and approval from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.
  3. Medical assistants can often opt for administrative-focused work environments. Only 3 percent of nurses work in educational or administrative work settings.
  4. On average, registered nurses earn more than double annually than medical assistants ($77,000 vs. $38,000, respectively).
  5. Although job openings for medical assistants are growing faster than openings for registered nurses, there are more than three times as many nurses in the United States as there are certified medical assistants (3.1 million vs. 750,00, respectively).


Can Medical Assistants Refer to Themselves as “Nurses?”

No, medical assistants cannot refer to themselves as nurses. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) considers that it is “illegal and unethical” for medical assistants to refer to themselves as nurses.

Do Nurses Earn More than Medical Assistants?

Yes, nurses make more money on average than medical assistants in the United States. Registered nurses make around $77,000 per year on average, whereas the average annual salary for a medical assistant is around $38,000.


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