Nurse, Nursing Assistant or Medical Assistant: How Are They Different?

Nurse, Nursing Assistant, or Medical Assistant?

In the course of receiving health care an individual often receives care from many professionals. As a patient, it’s not always easy to know who your nurse is. The title of “nurse” has erroneously become a generic term, used to designate one who gives care. In this two-part blog post I’ll explain the differences between a nurse, nursing assistant and medical assistant. You’ll see the differences in education and state regulations that provide an unyielding framework around these critical healthcare positions.

The correct designation of nurse—as a title—is defined by state nurse practice acts as one who is a registered nurse, an advanced practice registered nurse or a licensed practical nurse.  That individual is licensed and functions under a defined scope of practice.  The only person who may use the title of nurse, and answer to it, is an individual who has graduated from an approved nursing program, passed a National Council Licensure Examination (the NLCEX-PN or NCLEX-RN), and remains current in licensure. Here are the general differences between types of nurses:

  • Licensed practical nurses complete a program approved by a state board of nursing and must pass the NLCEX-PN exam to become licensed. Each state has a nurse practice act that details the scope of practice of the LPN in provision of care, patient education and care planning. Typically LPN’s care for stable patients in acute and chronic care settings and are supervised by registered nurses.
  • Registered nurses complete a program approved by a state board of nursing and must pass the NLCEX-RN exam to become licensed. Registered nurses function under a state nurse practice act and provide care in hospitals, long-term care, community, and public health settings. Registered nurses are prepared at the associate, baccalaureate, advanced practice master and doctorate of nursing practice levels of education. Scope of practice is based on the education degree. Registered nurses are responsible for direct care as well as assessment, teaching, case management and public health, and supervise LPN’s and unlicensed healthcare personnel.

Nursing assistants (NA) and medical assistants (MA) are valuable members of the healthcare team who also provide direct care to patients in various healthcare settings. These roles are often confused with nurses.

  • Nursing assistants complete a state approved program, usually 75-96 hours in length and pass an exam to be certified and placed on a state registry. The role of a nursing assistant is to provide basic care related to hygiene, nutrition and mobility needs. The nursing assistant is directly supervised by a registered nurse in a hospital, or home or long-term care setting.
  • Medical assistants complete a course of study in an accredited program with an end
    degree of an associate of applied science, and are recommended to take a certification exam. The role of a medical assistant is to serve the needs of physician employers in clinic settings. The medical assistant is supervised by an advanced practice registered nurse and/or physician and may administer medications, such as immunizations, perform blood draws, assist in clinic procedures, and perform administrative duties.

Clearly, it takes a wide range of health professionals to deliver patient care when and
where it’s needed. From nurses and nursing assistants to medical assistants, each is qualified to perform a wide range of care related  responsibilities.

It’s the person’s education and state regulations that determine what those responsibilities are.