What does a CNA do

Many medical professions are well worth the time and money needed to earn those positions. But the majority of medical workers aren’t full-fledged doctors but are instead CNAs (certified nursing assistants). Let’s take a look at this valuable but often over looked position 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 (licensed practical nurses). CNAs can also be referred to as patient care assistants (PCAs), nurse’s aides, or nursing assistants.

A great way to visualize how they fit into the medical hierarchy is like this:

  • Doctor
  • Physician Assistant
  • Nurse (RN or LPN)
  • CNA

As a result, 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 over the course of their education before graduating and rising up another tier.

How Are CNAs Different from Other Nurses?

The jobs look fairly similar at first glance. But the two careers are separate, even if the CNA job description is tricky to distinguish at first.

Similarities

CNAs and other nurses assist doctors and other healthcare professionals with tests, treatments, and medical procedures. While other nurses or medical assistance focus on evaluating patients or assisting doctors with various advanced patient care protocols or minor surgeries, CNAs usually handle much more of the direct, day-to-day patient care. If you've ever been in the hospital and someone has checked up on your IV drip or taken a random temperature check, odds are it was a CNA.

Many of the classes that other types of nurses take are similar to those required to become a CNA.

Differences

LPNs or RNs can only become one by earning a license and passing an exam mandated by the state. CNAs, on the other hand, only need a special certificate to practice. Additionally, their higher certification and licensure allows registered nurses and other medical assistants to perform procedures that CNAs are not allowed. A great example is the insertion of a peripheral intravenous catheter, which is forbidden for CNAs.

CNA Duties

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

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

CNA Duties

CNA duties are determined by states 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 at adult daycare centers, 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?

Once more 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 lack of advanced 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 and quirks based on the approved duties for this position.

CNA Programs

These programs may be found in multiple locations, including community colleges or vocational or technical schools. Many metropolitan hospitals have their own CNA programs that take place largely on hospital grounds, although they may be completed in partnership with a local university. Some high schools also have CNA programs depending on their proximity to local medical centers.

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

Male CNAs may find additional employment opportunities because of this last factor. With more upper body strength on average than female CNAs, male CNAs help maneuver larger patients more easily, especially in the event of an emergency.

How Do You Become an RN From a CNA?

RNs and LPNs have additional medical experience and educational requirements to attain their certification and 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 an LPN or RN program separately, then complete a training regimen ranging from several months to a year in length. Like the CNA program, LPN or RN programs incorporate classroom and clinical hours, along with an 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 their doctors ever will. Without CNAs, hospitals would be far less effective and valuable to society.

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