What is a CNA?

what is a cna

If you have an interest in nursing, you’ve probably run across the acronym “CNA.” But what is a CNA in healthcare, and how does this profession differ from other careers in nursing?

CNA stands for “certified nursing assistant,” an entry-level role that provides vital support to both patients and nurses. From transporting, bathing, and feeding hospital patients, to stocking medical supplies and logging patient information, CNAs are on the ground working to enhance patient outcomes. While a CNA is not classified as a nurse, this position is a fantastic entry point for dozens of different nursing careers.

Read on to learn more about what a CNA does, how to become a CNA, and the qualities that a certified nursing assistant should possess, along with information about CNA salary expectations and job outlook. For additional details about this career field, or to learn more about the nursing programs and certificates we offer at National University, contact our admissions officers for one-on-one support. We also recommend reading about some additional nursing and healthcare careers, such as becoming a Registered Nurse (RN), to help you determine what sort of specialty or focus area is the best fit for your interests and goals.

What Does a CNA Do?

As a CNA, you’ll provide basic care and support for patients under the supervision of a licensed nurse or other medical professional, which covers a wide range of responsibilities. Here are a few of the job tasks and duties that you may be responsible for in your role as a certified nursing assistant:

  • Answering calls from patients and making sure they’re as comfortable as possible
  • Checking and monitoring patients’ vital signs
  • Cleaning medical supplies and equipment
  • Communicating patients’ questions and concerns to nurses
  • Assist in dressing, bathing, and grooming patients
  • Ensuring that safety protocols and procedures are carried out properly
  • Following patient privacy rules and applying professional ethics
  • Gathering and stocking various medical supplies
  • Helping to ensure that patients’ nutritional and hydration needs are met
  • Keeping patients clean and attending to patient hygiene
  • Moving and transporting patients, such as helping patients get in and out of beds or wheelchairs

How Do I Become a CNA, and How Long Does it Take?

Becoming a CNA does not require you to hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree. In fact, as we’ll discuss in more detail shortly, there is no specific degree requirement to become a CNA — all you need is a high school diploma or its equivalent. However, there are rigorous testing requirements for CNAs, who must demonstrate their proficiency in a wide range of areas, such as patient care, hygiene, privacy, ethics, technical clinical skills, and various other competencies.

If there is no educational requirement, but you are still tested on your knowledge, how do you acquire the skills and expertise you need? The answer is that most states offer a wide range of CNA training programs, which can typically be completed in as little as four to eight weeks. Of course, if your goal is to transition from being a CNA into another healthcare role, such as becoming a registered nurse (RN), you should start planning on pursuing your bachelor’s degree or master’s degree to prepare you for more complex job responsibilities in the future.

Read on to learn more about the educational requirements for CNAs, the examination you’ll be required to pass, and what sort of content it covers.

Educational Requirements for CNAs

You may be surprised to learn that there is no degree requirement to become a CNA. In fact, some states allow CNAs to enter professional training programs If they have a high school diploma or are in a high school CNA program.

Because the educational requirements are minimal compared to those for many other healthcare professions, CNA is an attractive entry-level career for individuals who are studying or have an interest in nursing. However, just because there are different education requirements, that doesn’t mean aspiring CNAs aren’t held to high standards or rigorously tested on their knowledge. On the contrary, CNA hopefuls must pass a challenging written and hands-on exam in order to demonstrate competence — and apply to become certified.

CNA Certification and Exam Requirements

CNA certification exams are administered at the state level, which means that different rules and regulations apply depending on your location. For example, California CNA testing vendors are listed here by the California Department of Public Health, which also provides detailed information about CNA training programs, CNA applications and renewals, and various state and federal requirements.

Most states require CNAs to pass a specific exam known as the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program (NNAAP) examination, which is administered in 17 jurisdictions nationwide — all listed here by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, or NCSBN. The NNAAP features two key components: a written exam component and a clinical skills exam. Continue reading to learn more about these components of the NNAAP, along with whether CNAs can provide care for a wide variety of patients including those on specialty units.

Certification: Written Exam

According to the test preparation company Prometric, the written exam portion of the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program (NNAAP) examination features a total of “70 multiple-choice items, 10 of which are non-scored items that will only collect statistical information.” Credentia, which administers the exam in California, offers a practice NNAAP written exam for California test-takers.

Along with the clinical portion of the exam, which is discussed in the next section, the written component tests students on three core areas of knowledge: Physical Care Skills (such as dressing patients or collecting data), Psychosocial Care Skills (like attending to patients’ emotional needs), and the Role of the Nurse Aide (which touches on areas like ethics and client rights). This portion is also available as an oral exam and is offered in English and Spanish.

Certification: Clinical Skills Exam

The clinical skills (hands on) exam portion of the CNA exam is composed of five basic skills, such as measuring and recording vital signs, handwashing, and mobility assistance. “is composed of 60 multiple-choice items and 10 reading comprehension (word recognition) items,” according to Mometrix. You can view a practice NNAAP exam here, or explore the California CNA test prep resources offered by Credentia, which administers the test.

Can You Specialize?

Although CNA is an entry-level position, there may be opportunities for certified nursing assistants to obtain valuable experience in various specialty areas. According to CNALicense.org, the top five areas where CNAs work in 2022 are cardiology, pediatrics, geriatrics, psychiatry, and home care. However, as CNALicense also points out, it may be necessary to formally earn an entry level BSN degree before you can specialize in your chosen field — for example, earning your bachelor’s degree and becoming an RNso that you can pursue more job openings within this field.

female nurse hugging  a child. Qualities Should a CNA Possess

What Qualities Should a CNA Possess?

Being a CNA is a physically and sometimes emotionally demanding job that can place you into high-pressure situations, requiring a level-headed demeanor and the ability to maintain your professionalism even when the environment around you feels chaotic. You’ll also need the ability to help a diverse population of patients feel more at ease with procedures and environments that, for many people, can be stressful or intimidating.

These types of tasks call for a caring individual who possesses a high degree of empathy, exceptional communication skills, and great interpersonal skills. Here are some of the other skills and characteristics that a CNA should have in order to optimize their success in this career field:

  • Being a team player
  • Careful attention to detail
  • Dependability and accountability
  • Patience and compassion
  • Physical fitness
  • Willingness to engage in tasks like bathing and lifting patients
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Knowledge of medical terminology

How is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Different From a Medical Assistant (MA)?

We’ve covered what a CNA is, the sorts of traits and qualifications they need to possess, and what sorts of tasks they typically perform. Now that you understand what a CNA does, it’s important to differentiate this role from the position of medical assistant, or MA.

According to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), “Medical assistants are cross-trained to perform administrative and clinical duties.” Examples of an MA’s typical administrative duties include coding insurance documents, making arrangements for patients to be admitted to hospitals, answering phones, and assisting with billing and bookkeeping. Examples of clinical duties, by comparison, may include preparing patients for various exams, caring for wounds and changing dressings, conducting certain lab tests, and helping physicians conduct patient examinations.

While this job description shares some overlap with that of a CNA, the critical difference is that CNAs exclusively perform clinical tasks, such as moving and bathing patients. Additionally, there are differences in terms of salary expectations. For example, Salary.com reports that MAs earn an average salary of approximately $39,100 in the United States. Like CNAs, MAs do not need to possess a bachelor’s or master’s degree but must have a high school diploma or the equivalent, in addition to meeting state-specific certification requirements.

Where Do Certified Nursing Assistants Work?

Certified nursing assistants are needed in all types of healthcare settings, from nursing homes and memory care facilities for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, to the pediatric wards of hospitals. As such, CNAs have opportunities to work in a wide range of settings and environments, interacting directly with injured or ill patients — as well as the nurses and healthcare professionals who are treating them.

Examples of the types of facilities and organizations where CNAs typically work include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Ambulatory healthcare services (same-day care services), such as dialysis centers
  • Assisted living facilities and communities
  • Home healthcare services, which involves traveling directly to the patient’s home
  • Nursing care facilities (which are also referred to as “skilled nursing facilities”) and rehabilitation centers
  • State, private, and local hospitals, such as children’s hospitals and Veteran’s hospitals

Salary Expectation and Career Outlook for a Certified Nursing Assistant

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides detailed data about earning potential, job growth, and other important metrics for a wide range of careers and occupations. According to the BLS, nursing assistants (and orderlies, with whom CNAs are categorized) earned a median salary of $30,290 as of 2021, the most recent data available. The median salary was higher in the top-paying industries and employers for CNAs, which the BLS ranked as follows:

  1. Government organizations — $37,310
  2. State, local, and private hospitals — $35,870
  3. Skilled nursing facilities — $29,970
  4. “Continuing care retirement communities and assisted living facilities for the elderly” — $29,900
  5. “Home healthcare services” — $29,280

The earning potential may be higher for some CNAs. According to the BLS, the top 10% of earners had a salary of over $44,200. It’s also important to reiterate that many individuals transition from being a CNA into other nursing and healthcare career paths, such as radiation therapy, which has a median salary of approximately $82,800 annually according to BLS data. We’ll discuss how CNAs transition to other nursing positions, such as becoming a radiation therapist, in the section below.

In terms of career outlook for the future, the BLS projects the CNA field to grow at a rate of 5% through 2031. This is the same pace as the national average, which is also 5%.

medical professional looking up at vitals monitor

How do CNAs Transition to Other Nursing Positions?

As we’ve mentioned throughout this guide, CNA positions are excellent entry-level positions that provide essential experience and preparation for more specialized nursing roles. But how do you actually transition from being a CNA to being a nurse?

First, you should identify the type of nurse you want to become, since this will impact your degree requirements and the amount of time you’ll need to invest in your education. For example, a registered nurse must generally possess a bachelor’s degree or higher, while a nurse anesthetist is typically required to hold, at minimum, a master’s degree.

Whether you’re pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in nursing, National University’s four-week course structure and online learning options enable you to earn credits and complete programs efficiently, so that you can hit the ground running in your specialty area of choice. For example, start by exploring our Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program.

In addition to earning the appropriate degree, it’s also essential to earn any licenses or certifications that are required by your state, which may require you to pass one or more professional exams. For instance, to become a licensed RN in the state of California, you will need to pass the National Council Licensing Examination (NCLEX) exam. This requirement is upheld by the California Board of Registered Nursing (CBRN), whose steps and criteria for becoming an RN are listed here.

Finally, you’ll need to maintain your skills and keep your expertise up-to-date by completing continuing education requirements for nurses, which vary across states. For example, according to the CBRN, “In the State of California, Registered nurses are required by law (California Code of Regulations, Section 1451, Article 5) to complete 30 contact hours of continuing education every two years… [in order] to maintain an active license.”

Not only is continuing education for nurses a professional requirement in California and many other U.S. states — it will also enhance your marketability and expand your employment opportunities, regardless of which specialty or subfield of nursing you decide to pursue. Whether you are passionate about pediatrics, immunology, public health, cardiology, mental health, rehabilitation, or other focus areas, you should begin planning now for how you will fulfill the continuing education and professional development requirements that apply in your state.

Become a CNA with a Nursing Degree from National University

National University offers a range of regionally and nationally-accredited nursing programs for graduates and undergraduates, including flexible online options ideal for transfer students, international students, military students, and adult learners. Examples of our nursing degree programs include the Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Master of Science in Nursing, Doctorate of Nursing Practice, and Family Nurse Practitioner Certificate, plus professional nursing certificates such as the Certificate in Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. Whether you’re just starting out in the field, or you’re an experienced nurse who needs to fulfill California’s continuing education requirements, our programs will challenge you to refine your skills and elevate your expertise.

Make a positive difference in the lives of countless patients and their loved ones. Take the first steps on your academic journey today. Contact our admissions office to get started, or complete an application online using our secure submission portal.

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