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Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse


Compassion, emotional stability, patience, and good communication skills are all traits of people well-suited for a variety of healthcare roles, including two that show promising job growth: medical assistant and registered nurse (RN).


Both professions offer the opportunity to make a difference in the health of individuals and communities. But when it comes to medical assistant vs. registered nurse careers, how can students determine which is a better fit? One important aspect of the equation is exploring educational opportunities in nursing fields, such as pursuing a bachelor’s in nursing.

Definitions: Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse

Medical assistants and RNs both provide many services, but medical assistants’ roles include clerical as well as clinical responsibilities. RNs take more of a leadership role in patient care.

What Is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants often receive cross-training in administrative and clinical tasks. Typically working in hospitals, medical doctors’ offices, and other healthcare settings, medical assistants play an important role in putting patients at ease.

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Medical assistants provide support for doctors, nurses, and other clinical staff. Their responsibilities range from administrative tasks to some patient-facing duties. A medical assistant’s tasks can include the following:


  • Answering calls and scheduling appointments
  • Greeting patients and directing them to examination rooms
  • Communicating with insurance companies, medical supply businesses, and pharmacies
  • Keeping patient charts and office financial records
  • Preparing treatment rooms
  • Checking vital signs and health histories
  • Assisting doctors with conducting medical procedures and administering medications
  • Reviewing follow-up instructions with patients

Steps to Become a Medical Assistant

Medical assistants usually have a high school diploma. They often go on to a one- to two-year program in which they learn the basics of the job — such as a certificate or diploma program from a junior college or technical school — or they may have an associate degree.


Some employers and states require medical assistants to hold national certification, but it’s not always required. Certification attests that certified medical assistants (CMAs) are competent and knowledgeable about healthcare administrative and clinical tasks. Because this career field is entry level, some doctors’ offices may even provide on-the-job training for starting medical assistants.


Skills for success include:


  • Accuracy. Medical assistants must record patient vital signs without errors.
  • Analytical skills. Medical assistants need to understand how to read charts and code patient conditions and treatments accurately into billing software.
  • Technical skills. Medical assistants must learn to use medical equipment such as blood pressure cuffs and technology such as electronic health record (EHR) systems.
  • Communication and empathy. Soft skills such as effective communication skills and empathy for patients are key to success in this role.

Steps to Become a Registered Nurse

RNs must have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited college nursing program, or a diploma from an approved hospital nursing program. These educational programs prepare RNs to pass the national exam, called the National Council Licensure Examination-Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN). Once nurses have passed the NCLEX-RN, they must be licensed by the nursing board of the state in which they practice to become RNs.


Nurses are required to maintain their licenses with continuing professional education throughout their careers. If they earn any advanced certifications, they will usually have to recertify after a certain number of years.


Additionally, RNs may specialize in a specific field of nursing, such as critical care or gerontology. RNs who want a leadership role in healthcare or are interested in an advanced-practice role, such as a nurse practitioner role, can continue their education with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).


Required nursing skills include:


  • Clinical knowledge. Nurses must apply their scientific backgrounds to patient care.
  • Detail orientation. RNs are responsible for accurately recording patients’ vital signs and correctly administering treatments.
  • Communication and collaboration skills. RNs must communicate and collaborate with physicians, patients, other clinical staff, and healthcare administrators.
  • Compassion and empathy. A large part of a nurse’s job is to be a patient’s advocate and support system.

Similarities Between Medical Assistants and Registered Nurses

At the heart of medical assistants’ and RNs’ roles is interacting with patients and medical personnel to improve health outcomes. Other similarities include:

Required Skills

Medical assistants and RNs both work with patients, physicians, and other healthcare professionals. They need strong interpersonal and communication skills to listen to patients and cohorts, interpret medical data, and accurately convey information verbally and in writing. And, because they have access to confidential patient information, those in both professions must exercise discretion.


Their shared emphasis on working with patients also places compassion and empathy at a premium for medical assistants and registered nurses, with both roles requiring a strong desire to help others. The professions also require being able to handle multiple tasks simultaneously and to use critical thinking in administering and assisting with treatment.

Job Outlook

Medical assistants and RNs are in high demand in the job market, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicting faster-than-average growth for both between 2020 and 2030. Jobs for medical assistants and RNs will grow by 18% and 9%, respectively, during that period, according to BLS projections.


The BLS attributes this positive outlook to an increasing emphasis on preventive healthcare as well as the growing medical demands of the aging baby-boom population.

Differences: Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse

Despite their similarities, comparing medical assistant vs. registered nurse careers reveals significant differences. From where they work to the education they require, medical assistants’ and RNs’ roles each have many characteristics that set them apart.

Work Environment

More than half of medical assistants (57%) work in physicians’ offices, according to the BLS, although they also work in hospitals and outpatient clinics. RNs, on the other hand, more frequently work in hospitals, with 61% working in those facilities. RNs also work in sites such as clinics, homes, schools, and nursing care facilities.

Annual Salaries

Salaries are another area of difference between medical assistants and RNs, largely because of educational requirements and scope of responsibility.

Medical Assistant Annual Salary

The median annual salary for medical assistants was $35,850 in 2020, according to the BLS, with the highest paid 10% earning more than $50,580.

Registered Nurse Annual Salary

RNs, who typically have greater educational requirements and often hold leadership roles, had a median annual salary of $75,330 in 2020, with the highest paid 10% earning more than $116,230, according to the BLS.

Education and Certification

Most medical assistants have some postsecondary education, such as certificates, diplomas, or associate degrees. Some employers and states require that medical assistants hold national certification. Registered nurses, however, typically earn associate or bachelor’s degrees, and all RNs must hold state licensure.

Benefits of a Registered Nurse Career

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the nursing profession came into the spotlight. News reports of overwhelmed nurses and other healthcare providers increased sympathy for these front-line workers. Nurses continue to be considered the most ethical and honest professionals, according to a 2022 Gallup poll.


Here are some of the benefits of a career as a registered nurse:

Helping Patients and Families

Nurses often speak of the satisfaction they get from being healthcare professionals. They know they have an immediate impact on patients and their families. This is a major reason many nurses enter the profession.

Wide Variety of Career Paths

RNs have a many options when considering a career path. Nurses may choose critical care, pediatrics, geriatrics, or another specialty. They may work in a hospital, private practice, surgical care facility, assisted living facility, or other healthcare facility. RNs may choose to become an advanced-practice nurse, such as a nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, or faculty member at a nursing college. They also may choose a career as a highly paid travel nurse.

Career Advancement

Nurses may take on administrative or executive roles in a hospital or organization. Many nurses go on to earn an advanced degree, which can lead to options such as becoming a chief nursing officer or getting a chance to do research to advance the field of nursing. Nurses have scientific backgrounds that are in demand as consultants and other experts as well.

Discover What’s Next in Your Healthcare Journey

Medical assistant vs. registered nurse: Which one is right for you? As you pursue your professional goals in healthcare, explore a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Maryville University’s RN to BSN online can be a great way to enhance your skills and open opportunities for advanced roles. Featuring a continually updated curriculum, flexible schedule, and options for eligible credit transfers, Maryville’s RN to BSN online degree program can help you make an already rewarding career even more satisfying.


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