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PCA vs CNA: What Are the Differences?

Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) and Patient Care Assistants (PCAs) are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, although they both refer to professionals in the medical field, each role has a unique set of responsibilities that sets it apart from one another. Other names for a CNA include “nurse aides,” “hospital assistants,” “healthcare assistants,” “orderlies,” and “nursing assistants.” PCAs may be referred to as “personal support workers,” “patient care assistants,” “caregivers,” and “home care aides.”

The choice of employing a CNA or PCA depends upon the patient’s medical needs. CNAs are mainly used to aid nurses in a variety of medical practices, while PCAs are more commonly employed to help with patient comfort and care. It is recommended that students and aspirants who choose a career in nursing understand some of the major responsibilities, work settings, salaries, and scope of practice of these professionals.

Job Responsibilities and Duties

A CNA’s duties include:

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

PCA duties include:

  • Checking the nutritional value of the patient’s diet;
  • Collecting specimens for diagnostic tests;
  • Doing laundry;
  • Drawing blood;
  • EKG readings;
  • Escorting patients to operation areas;
  • Hooking up telemetry PTs;
  • Performing basic laboratory work.

Educational Requirements

For both CNAs and PCAs, 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.

Aside from a high school diploma or equivalent, PCAs/PCTs will need to get their nurse aide license before moving forward in their degree. CNAs must enroll in a state-approved nursing program in order to earn their degree.

License/Certification Requirements

In order to get a CNA certification, aspirants must take 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. 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;
  • Communicating with doctors and patients’ relatives;
  • Equipment setup;
  • Medical and procedure assisting;
  • Medical terminology;
  • Patient nutrition;
  • Taking and recording vital signs;
  • Turning and repositioning patients;
  • Wound care.

The prerequisites for becoming a PCA may vary by state, however, all require their applicants to have good interpersonal and communication skills. In some states, a CNA certification is also required in order to practice as a PCA nurse — otherwise, the candidate must have cleared the first semester of the nursing clinical (practical) exam, in which all basic CNA skills are taught. However, extensive health care knowledge is not required to practice this profession. A minimum of 20-24 weeks (120 hours of classroom instruction and four hours of clinical practice) of the program is required to become a PCA nurse. Here, they will learn:

  • Basic first aid;
  • How to care for the elderly;
  • CPR;
  • Skills for grooming and personal hygiene for patients;
  • Taking and recording vital signs.


The average annual salary of CNA professionals as of May 28th, 2020, is $32,155. As of May 28th, 2020, PCAs make on average $28,850 per year.

Work Experience

There is no previous work experience required to become a CNA, but for PCAs, working knowledge as a phlebotomist, nurse aide, or ECG technician may be required by some healthcare facilities.

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 (licensed practical nurses) or RNs (registered nurses). These professionals can’t carry out the responsibilities of a PCA.

PCAs are capable of accomplishing the duties of a nurse aide as well. Moreover, they can provide basic medical treatment to the patients.

Both CNAs and PCAs can be found working in:

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

Working Alternatives

CNAs can work in rehabilitation centers, long-term health care centers, nursing homes, hospitals, residential care facilities, hospice, obstetric and pediatric departments, etc. They are also eligible to work in home health agencies. However, they can’t work in critical care units. To further upgrade their career one step, they can enroll themselves in medical assistant programs and can work as a medical assistant in the future too.

PCAs may get a job in critical care units, blood banks, dialysis and cancer clinics, ERs, and ICUs. They work simultaneously with 4-5 nurses and approximately 16 patients at a time. They can also prefer to carry out their career in various medical settings, like non-medical personal care service agencies, etc.