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CNA vs RN: What Are the Differences?

Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and registered nurses (RNs) are similar due to the fact they both refer to professionals in the medical field, but each role has a unique set of responsibilities that sets it apart from one another. A certified nursing assistant works at an entry-level position in a variety of locations — such as nursing homes, hospitals, and clinics — and provides basic patient care. On the other hand, a registered nurse works at higher levels and supervises the work of CNAs and licensed practical nurses (LPNs), and works as a manager of the nursing units. Here are some key areas where both professions differ.

Job Responsibilities and Duties

A position as a CNA is an entry-level job. Their job is to carry out their work under the supervision and direction of LPNs and RNs. Registered nurses hold a very high position in the hierarchy of the medical industry. They supervise the work of nurse aides and licensed practical nurses.

Other CNA duties include:

  • Answering call signals;
  • Assisting patients with bathing;
  • Cleaning and dressing wounds;
  • Helping patients move, turn, rotate, and walk;
  • Measuring vital symptoms like blood pressure, blood sugar, weight, height, etc;
  • Motivating patients to exercise;
  • Recording patient temperature.

An RN’s duties include:

  • Administer medications;
  • Aid in medical procedures and processes;
  • Assign tasks to CNAs and LPNs;
  • Give injections;
  • Perform diagnostic tests;
  • Read and interpret test results;
  • Work with other medical staff, such as doctors and physician assistants, to establish patient care plans.


For both CNAs and RNs, it is required that individuals have their high school diploma or GED prior to obtaining their degree. Being phlebotomy and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certified is recommended for both careers as well.

On the other hand, the education requirements for working as an RN include a high school diploma, as well as a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) or ADN (Associate’s Degree in Nursing).


In order to get a CNA certification, aspirants must undergo an accredited CNA programming course that lasts four to six weeks (or 75 hours total) and 16 hours of clinical training, which then qualifies them to take the required exam consisting of various topics. To get a better understanding of what to expect on the exam, students can take a CNA practice test. During the course, prospecting CNAs will train in the following areas:

  • Administering different medications;
  • Basic first aid;
  • Communicating with doctors and patients’ relatives;
  • CPR;
  • Equipment setup;
  • Medical and procedure assisting;
  • Medical terminology;
  • Patient nutrition;
  • Taking and recording vital signs;
  • Turning and repositioning patients;
  • Wound care.

After completing the CNA Program, you have to take and pass the NNAAP (National Nurse Aide Assessment Program) in order to obtain your nurse aide certificate.

To obtain a license as an RN, students will have to be accepted into an accredited program, and take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX Exam). The length in which the license is obtained varies on degree level. For example, an associate’s degree can take two years, a bachelor’s degree three to four years and a master’s can take up to two more additional years. Common prerequisites for the course include:

  • Passing of the ACT or SAT;
  • GPA between 2.0 and 3.25 (specific requirements will vary on each nursing school);
  • 2 years of a foreign language;
  • 3 years of Math;
  • 3 years of Science;
  • 4 years of English;
  • Acceptance into an accredited nursing school.

Upon acceptance, RN students will learn everything CNAs learn, but more in-depth. They will also learn how to manage medical staff, time management, critical patient care, and phlebotomy.


The average annual salary of CNA professionals as of May 28th, 2020, is $32,155. As of June 28th, 2020, RNs make on average $65,870 per year.

Scope of Practice

CNA duties differ from those of patient care assistants. They provide basic care to the patients and are not authorized to give medical treatment. They work under the supervision of LPNs or RNs. These professionals can’t carry out the responsibilities of an RN, however, they can work in the same facilities. These facilities include:

  • Clinics;
  • Doctor’s offices;
  • Hospitals;
  • In-home care;
  • Retirement/nursing homes.

RNs can choose to focus on a career in the following fields:

  • Cardiovascular nursing;
  • Critical care;
  • Enterostomal therapy;
  • Gastroenterology;
  • Geriatric nursing;
  • Home health;
  • Hospice;
  • Nephrology;
  • Nurse educator;
  • Occupational therapy;
  • Oncology;
  • Orthopedics;
  • Pediatrics;
  • Perianesthesia;
  • Phlebotomy;
  • Psychiatric;
  • Public health;
  • Rehabilitation;
  • Staffing;
  • Surgical nursing.

Further Professional Growth

A nursing assistant can get additional programs or education to advance his/her career. S/he can become an LPN or RN after getting further education. They can either opt for CNA to LPN programs or directly move on to being a registered nurse. There are many CNA to RN programs through which you can complete the course of RN in a shorter duration (approximately 18 months). A registered nurse can become a nurse practitioner and may also work as a nursing unit manager after gaining additional education.