What is the difference between a Medical Assistant and a Registered Nurse?

Obviously MA's and RN's do different things, but just exactly what are the practical differences? We take a look and answer the question.

The 4 main areas of difference are:

  1. Salary
  2. Work Hours
  3. Education
  4. Responsibilities

Salary

This is the topic that comes up most often, because Registered Nurses typically earn a lot more than Medical Assistants.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics lists the median salaries for both occupations in 2010 as being:

With Registered Nurses earning more than double what Medical Assistants make, there clearly must be some big differences in the responsibilities of the two roles, so let's take a look...

Work Hours

MA's typically work in small practices and clinics where patients come in for short visits. RN's on the other hand tend to be employed by Hospitals and large clinics where patients may have short visits, but where many of them are also assigned beds and stay through the night.

For Medical Assistants, this means that they are typically able to work a regular 'day job'.

The situation is often quite different for RN's who have to provide patient care 24/7. This translates into a great deal of shift work and 'on-call' sessions where nurses are on stand by in order to respond to calls for additional staff at any time of the day or night.

Education

There is no legally required minimum level of education for a Medical Assistant because no formal qualification is required. However, most MA's these days do want to be certified, and that generally requires between 6 and 12 months of study. It is possible to do longer courses and it can be beneficial in some cases - for a closer look at this issue see our article on Associate Degrees in Medical Assisting.

Becoming a Registered Nurse requires a minimum of an Associate Degree which usually takes at least 2 years to complete, however most RNs will study for a Bachelor Degree. This will generally take between 3 to 4 years to complete, and of course comes with a higher price tag.

Responsibilities

Probably the main difference that we often hear of is that RN's have to do a lot more paperwork than MA's. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Nurses have to keep detailed records about patient vital signs at regular intervals, they have to keep precise records of medications - how much and when they were administered, and they usually have many more patients to keep track of.

Here is a brief overview of the basic duties performed in each role:

Registered Nurse (RN) Medical Assistant (MA)
Administer medicines, injections, and treatments Administer medicines and injections
Consult with doctors and other healthcare professionals Answer directly to doctors
Help perform diagnostic tests and analyze results Help with diagnostic tests where qualified
Operate and monitor medical equipment EG: EKG Operate medical equipment EG: EKG
Record patient medical histories Take basic patient information prior to appointments
Create patient care plans
Continuous patient observation - recording the results
Council patients on managing their condition
Provide guidance on home care post treatment

This isn't an exhaustive list of differences in duties and responsibilities, however you can see that an RN has a great deal more responsibility than a Medical Assistant.

Summary

The take-away points are that RN's earn higher salaries, take significantly longer to gain their qualifications, often have to work longer/irregular hours, and take direct responsibly for their patients, whereas an MA works directly under a doctor who takes most of the responsibility.

For more detailed information on the duties of an MA see: What is a Medical Assistant? or you might also like to read Medical Assistant to RN - What Does it Take?.

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