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Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse

Compassion, emotional stability, patience, and good communication skills are all traits of people well-suited for a variety of healthcare roles, including two that show promising job growth: medical assistant and registered nurse (RN).

Both professions offer the opportunity to make a difference in the health of individuals and communities. But when it comes to medical assistant vs. registered nurse careers, how can students determine which is a better fit? One important aspect of the equation is exploring education opportunities in nursing fields, such as pursuing a bachelor’s in nursing.

A smiling nurse.

Definitions: Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse

Medical assistants and RNs both provide many services, but medical assistants’ roles include clerical as well as clinical responsibilities. RNs take more of a leadership role in patient care.

Medical Assistant

Medical assistants often receive cross-training to be competent at both administrative and clinical tasks. Typically working in hospitals, medical doctors’ offices, and other healthcare settings, medical assistants play an important role in putting patients at ease.

A medical assistant’s tasks can include the following:

  • Answering calls and scheduling appointments
  • Greeting patients and directing them to examination rooms
  • Communicating with insurance companies, medical supply businesses, and pharmacies
  • Keeping patient charts and office financial records
  • Preparing treatment rooms
  • Checking vital signs and health histories
  • Assisting doctors with conducting medical procedures and administering medications
  • Reviewing follow-up instructions with patients

Registered Nurse

The American Nurses Association calls registered nurses “the backbone of healthcare provision in the United States.” RNs provide and coordinate care for patients, and they share information about health conditions with patients and the public. Among their responsibilities are the following:

  • Assessing and recording patients’ conditions, medical histories, and symptoms
  • Administering medicines and treatments
  • Establishing or providing information for patient plans
  • Collaborating with physicians and other healthcare professionals
  • Operating and monitoring medical equipment
  • Performing tests and analyzing results
  • Teaching patients and their loved ones how to manage medical conditions
  • Explaining at-home treatments

Similarities Between Medical Assistants and Registered Nurses

At the heart of medical assistants’ and RNs’ roles is interacting with patients and medical personnel to improve health outcomes. But similarities between the careers don’t end there.

Required Skills

Medical assistants and RNs both work with patients, physicians, and other healthcare professionals. They need strong interpersonal and communication skills to listen to patients and cohorts, interpret medical data, and accurately convey information verbally and in writing. And, because they have access to confidential patient information, those in both professions must exercise discretion.

Their shared emphasis on working with patients also places compassion and empathy at a premium for medical assistants and registered nurses, with both roles requiring a strong desire to help others. The professions also require the ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously and to use critical thinking in administering and assisting with treatment.

Job Outlook

Medical assistants and RNs are in high demand in the job market, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicting faster-than-average growth for both between 2019 and 2029. The BLS projects that jobs for medical assistants and RNs will grow by 19% and 7%, respectively, during that period.

The BLS attributes this positive outlook to an increasing emphasis on preventive healthcare as well as the growing medical demands of the aging baby boomer population.

Differences: Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse

Despite the similarities between them, comparing medical assistant vs. registered nurse careers reveals significant differences. From where they work to the education they require, medical assistants’ and RNs’ roles each have many characteristics that set them apart.

Work Environment

More than half of medical assistants (57%) work in physicians’ offices, according to the BLS, although they also work in hospitals and outpatient clinics. RNs, on the other hand, more frequently work in hospitals, with 60% working in those facilities. RNs also work in sites such as clinics, homes, schools, and nursing care facilities.

Annual Salaries

RNs, who typically have greater educational requirements and often hold leadership roles, have a median annual salary that is higher than that of medical assistants. The BLS lists RNs’ median annual salary in 2019 as $73,300, compared with $34,800 for medical assistants.

Education and Certification

Most medical assistants have some postsecondary education. They often have certificates or diplomas from a junior college or technical school, or they may have associate degrees. Some employers and states require medical assistants to hold national certification, but it’s not always required.

Registered nurses, however, typically earn associate or bachelor’s degrees — with the standard moving toward holding a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. RNs also must pass the National Council Licensure Examination-Registered Nurse, or NCLEX-RN, and meet any additional state requirements.

Discover What’s Next in Your Healthcare Journey

What’s next as you pursue your professional goals in healthcare? Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) degree program can be a great way to enhance your skills and open opportunities for advanced roles. Featuring a continually updated curriculum, flexible schedule, and options for eligible credit transfers, Maryville’s RN to BSN online degree program can help you make an already rewarding career even more satisfying.

Recommended Reading

10 Tips for Becoming an Advanced Practice Nurse

Types of Nursing Degrees: Which Nurse Path Is Right for You?

Your Future in Nursing: RN vs. BSN vs. MSN


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, The Impact of Education on Nursing Practice

American Association of Medical Assistants, What Is a Medical Assistant?

American Nurses Association, What Is Nursing?

Houston Chronicle, “Personality Traits for Successful Medical Careers”

O-Net OnLine, Medical Assistants

O-Net OnLine, Registered Nurses

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical Assistants

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses

U.S. News & World Report, Registered Nurse Overview

Wisegeek, “What Does a Medical Assistant Do?”