Medical Assistant vs. Nurse: What’s the Difference?

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated August 29, 2023
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If you're researching medical assistant vs. nurse careers, you've come to the right place. Learn about the differences and similarities between the two roles.
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Medical assistant talking to patient about health historyCredit: Halfpoint Images / Moment / Getty Images

Medical assistants and nurses share some overlapping duties, but nurses undergo additional education and training, earn higher salaries, and have opportunities to specialize and advance their careers.

Medical assistants provide basic patient care and perform administrative tasks, which can build a solid foundation for nursing school and future practice.

Learn more about the similarities between medical assistant vs. nurse roles, responsibilities, employment prospects, and salaries. Discover which path might be the best fit for you.

Medical Assistant and Registered Nurse Key Similarities and Differences

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants support physicians and nurses by performing administrative, clinical, and patient liaison tasks. They work in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and outpatient care centers.

Similar to entry-level nurses, licensed vocational nurses, and nursing assistants, medical assistants provide basic patient care — but only under the direction of a registered nurse or physician.

What is a Registered Nurse?

Registered nurses (RNs) work in coordination with doctors and other medical professionals to care for patients, educate them and their families on health conditions and treatment, and assist physicians during procedures.

RNs find employment in a variety of medical settings, including clinics, hospitals, nursing and residential facilities, and physicians’ offices.

Similarities and Differences

Similarities between medical assistants and RNs include knowledge and execution of entry-level patient care: taking vital signs, performing basic first aid, and assisting during exams.

Medical assistants’ responsibilities tend to include more administrative tasks. RNs function more autonomously and serve as patient educators and advocates.

Medical assistants can qualify for certification after completing a training program lasting 9-12 months. RNs, on the other hand, spend 2-4 years earning a nursing degree, and must hold a license through their state’s nursing board. RNs earn significantly higher salaries than medical assistants.

Medical Assistant and Registered Nurse Comparison
Medical AssistantRegistered Nurse
Degree RequiredDiploma or certificateAssociate degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelor of science in nursing (BSN)
How Long to Become1-2 years2-4 years
Duties and ResponsibilitiesBasic clinical and administrative tasksCoordinate and provide patient care; education and advocacy for patients and families
Average Annual Salary$38,190$82,750

Source: BLS

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Duties and Responsibilities.

This section describes the typical duties and responsibilities of each role, offering a comparison of medical assistant vs. nurse tasks.

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Medical assistants work under the supervision of physicians, registered nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

The responsibilities of medical assistants vary depending on the type of facility where they work. For example, medical assistants may perform housekeeping tasks at private practices.

Typical duties include:

  • Welcoming patients and preparing them for exams
  • Taking patient medical histories and updating records
  • Performing laboratory tests
  • Answering calls and scheduling appointments
  • Handling billing, coding and insurance forms, and bookkeeping
  • Arranging hospital admissions and lab services

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

RNs collaborate with physicians, nurse practitioners, and other medical professionals. They often work autonomously with patients. RNs may also supervise medical assistants, licensed practical nurses, and nursing assistants.

Day-to-day duties include:

  • Observing and assessing patients
  • Coordinating and updating patient care plans
  • Administering treatment and medication
  • Consulting with physicians and other medical staff
  • Diagnosing lab test results
  • Informing patients and families about their conditions and treatment and teaching them about home care

Education and Certification

When considering the medical assistant vs. nurse roles, the education, licensing, and certification processes are very different:

How to Become a Medical Assistant

Becoming a medical assistant requires a high school diploma with coursework in math and sciences, completing 9-12 months in a training program, or earning a two-year associate degree.

In some states, you need to pass the Certified Medical Assistant exam offered through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). The American Registry of Medical Assistants also offers credentials.

AAMA certification requires graduation from a training program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Program (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

The program must include a practicum in an ambulatory healthcare setting. Applicants should check with their state’s licensing requirements, which vary.

How to Become a Registered Nurse

RNs qualify for licensure with an associate- or bachelor’s-level nursing degree, which they can earn in 2-4 years. They must pass the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to qualify for their RN licenses through their state nursing boards. Each nursing board imposes its own requirements and procedures.

RNs who want to advance their careers and bolster their incomes can pursue optional board certifications in a patient population or specialty area, including pediatrics, adult-gerontology, neonatal, and acute or critical care.

Salary and Career Outlook

Both medical assistants and RNs are in demand, and job seekers should encounter numerous opportunities. But salary potential between medical assistants vs. nurses varies widely.

Medical Assistant Salary and Career Outlook

Average Annual Medical Assistant Salary

Source: BLS, 2021

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical assistants can expect a nearly 16% projected employment increase for 2021-31 and an average annual salary of $38,190.

Factors that influence job markets and pay rates include time on the job, geographic location, choice of workplace, and certification. For example, outpatient care centers tend to pay more than other practice settings. Medical assistants in Washington outearn their counterparts in other states.

Registered Nurse Salary and Career Outlook

Average Annual Registered Nurse Salary

Source: BLS, 2021

The BLS projects a 6% employment increase for RNs during 2021-31 and reports annual salaries averaging $82,750. But, as is the case for medical assistants, wage increases can result from experience, state of residence, practice environment, and credentials.

RNs in California and Hawaii earn six-figure incomes, and board certification raised RN average annual wages to $88,000.

Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse: Which Career is Right For Me?

If you’re interested in entering the medical field in a relatively short time frame, becoming a medical assistant offers opportunities to help patients and explore whether healthcare work suits you.

If you’re considering a nursing career, medical assistant training and experience can provide a solid background for nursing school and practice.

Becoming an entry-level RN can take two years or less, and give you a preview into the healthcare field. Career advancement and increased pay, however, come with earning a BSN or master of science in nursing (MSN) and specializing in a focus area.

An RN license can qualify you to complete your master of science in nursing (MSN) in three years (or two years with a BSN) and apply for positions as a highly trained and in-demand advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

Related Pages

Page last reviewed January 11, 2023

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