Dr. Jan Olson - Nursing Expert Academically reviewed by Dr. Jan Olson - Nursing Expert
What does a CNA do

Many nursing professions are well worth the time and money needed to earn those positions. But, not all nursing professionals are licensed nurses - some are CNAs (certified nursing assistants).

Let’s take a look at this valuable but often over looked profession to see what CNAs do and how to become one.

What Does a CNA Do, Exactly?

A Certified Nursing Assistant, or CNA, is a healthcare professional that assists their patients with their healthcare needs or daily activities under the supervision of either RNs (registered nurses) or LPNs/LVNs (licensed practical nurses). CNAs may also be referred to as patient care assistants (PCAs), nurse’s aides, or nursing assistants.

Many CNAs use this position to increase their medical and healthcare knowledge as they proceed into an RN or LPN career. Many RN or LPN programs require that students become CNAs as a condition of their program requirements.

How Are CNAs Different from Nurses?

While there are commonalities across the nursing profession, licensed nurses and certified nursing assistants are two different careers that work together.

Similarities

CNAs assist nurses and other healthcare professionals with clinical procedures. While nurses and CNAs both provide direct patient care, nurses perform assessments, patient evaluations, interpret labs, orders and patient data.

CNAs do not perform assessments, but provide skilled care such as vital signs, and patient hygiene, for example.

Differences

Licensed nurses earn their credentialing after college level programs and passing state licensure exams. CNAs, on the other hand, need a special certificate to practice.

This difference in level of education and skill level differentiates scope of practice. For example, a nurse may insert a peripheral intravenous catheter, which is beyond the scope of practice of a CNA.

CNA Duties

CNA duties can vary wildly depending on the area of practice and the needs of patients at the time. General responsibilities for CNAs may include:

  • bathing patients
  • answering calls or bells from patients
  • gathering supplies for nurses or doctors
  • turning or repositioning patients
  • checking vital signs
  • documenting provided information from the patient
  • combing or shaving hair and performing other grooming necessities
  • providing oral care
  • cleaning rooms and bed linens
  • preparing rooms for new patient admissions
  • assisting with medical procedures
  • dressing wounds

CNA Duties

CNA scope of practice is determined by each state and based upon the exams required for certification. Thus, CNAs in a particular state may not be able to practice the exact same duties as CNAs in another state, although the two positions will likely be more similar than not.

CNAs can commonly be found in inpatient hospital settings, but can also be found in assisted living, rehabilitation centers, and long-term residential facilities.

How Many People Are CNAs?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over 1.5 million CNAs currently employed in the United States. The position is expected to grow by about 9% over the next 10 years, which is faster than the national average.

This will result in an additional 137,800 jobs in medical centers across the country in the next decade. As a result, those looking to become CNAs will experience plenty of employment opportunities once they achieve their certification.

How Much Can a CNA Earn?

According to the BLS, nursing assistants can expect a median annual wage of about $28,540. This is a little lower than the median annual wage for all occupations at $38,000, but it is still respectable given the limited education or licensure required to attain the position.

Additionally, the highest 10% of CNAs typically earn more than $40,000 every year based on promotions or experience at their medical center. There are always opportunities to improve their skills and become RNs or LPNs while working.

This is especially true as many CNAs work part-time, allowing them time to pursue additional education. See our guide on CNA salary for more information.

How Do You Become a CNA?

To become a CNA, you must complete a state-approved training program. The programs are all relatively similar to one another, although every state has its unique requirements based on the scope of practice for this position.

CNA Programs

These programs may be found in multiple locations, including community colleges or vocational or technical schools. Some hospitals and long term care facilities have their own CNA programs that take place largely on site. Some high schools also have CNA programs for their students. 

CNA programs do not have rigorous prerequisites. Most prerequisites include an in-person orientation information session, a background check for criminal history, a high school diploma or equivalent, a physical form, and TB screening test.

CNA programs are usually 4 to 12 weeks long depending on the class schedule, with more compressed class schedules yielding a faster graduation rate. Virtually all programs are split into class hours and clinical hours.

Class hours are similar to what you would expect from traditional higher education experiences, with lectures and exams. Clinical hours take place on hospital or medical center grounds and familiarize students with medical equipment and terminology and let them practice before they become certified CNAs.

Additionally, some CNA programs can be completed entirely online, with the exception of a few hands-on components necessary to train individuals in the required skills. Online programs are often attractive for those who aren’t geographically close to a medical center. 

CNA Exam

After a CNA program is completed, individuals are qualified to take a competency exam. This exam consists of two parts: a practical skill-based exam that measures your real-world knowledge and a multiple-choice written exam.

You can always prepare for this exam using CNA practice tests; it’s a great way to ensure that you ace the test the first time you take it!

Completion of the exam places the individual on the state registry and marks them as an official certified nursing assistant. Some programs, because of their proximity or inclusion within a medical center, come with guaranteed employment after completion, though this is not a universal perk.

Other Requirements

In addition to all of the academic requirements, CNAs should have several personal or physical qualities that enable them to fulfill all of the expected duties.

Some of these qualities include extensive empathy for patients’ pain-and-suffering, flexibility with schedules (as they may need to stay on the clock longer than their shift to take care of patients), and a certain amount of physical strength.

How Do You Become an RN From a CNA?

RNs and LPNs have additional clinical experience and educational requirements to attain their licensure. However, you can apply to an RN or LPN program while you are a CNA - many CNAs experience a greater likelihood of program acceptance based on their immersion in the nursing environment already.

But, the completion of a CNA program does not guarantee acceptance into a higher program by default. 

You must apply for acceptance to a nursing program. LPN programs are typically less than two years while a RN program is typically 4 years. Nursing programs include multiple levels of theoretical and clinical learning along with a licensure exam at the end.

See our guide on how to become a nurse for more information.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are There Continuing Education Requirements for CNAs?

All CNAs must complete 48 hours of continuing education every two years. This ensures that they retain the skills necessary to take up a CNA position with their certification even if they haven’t been employed as a CNA for a year or more. Failure to complete this education every two years will result in the revocation of your certification.

Is There Financial Aid for CNA programs?

The Federal Application for Student Aid is the most common financial aid option used by CNA students. It looks at your economic background and demographic information to determine whether you are eligible for certain federal government-funded grants and loans, including several valuable subsidized loans. For more information, see our guide on How to Become a CNA.

Can You Be a CNA in More Than One State?

Yes. To be a CNA in more than one state, you must contact every state’s certification board or registry and submit your application to be certified in that state. Because states have different requirements, you may be asked to complete additional classes or training before your certification is valid in both states. For more information, see our guide on How to Become a CNA.

Conclusion

Overall, becoming a CNA might be a great career choice for your future. CNAs fill a valuable role in the hospital and medical center scene, arguably spending more time with patients than other health care providers. Without CNAs, hospitals would be far less effective and valuable to society.

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