What is a CNA?

A CNA, or Certified Nursing Assistant, is an assistive medical position. Unlike a Registered Nurse (RN) or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Certified Nursing Assistants do not hold a medical license or have a college degree in the medical field. For example, a Registered Nurse must graduate from an undergraduate program and pass an exam to hold a nursing license. A Licensed Practical Nurse does not need a degree — one year of training and the passing of the NCLEX-PN exam is all that is required.

In the United States this assistive position is called a CNA, but designations in other countries include Nursing Assistant (NA), State Tested Nurse Aid (STNA), or Patient Care Assistant (PCA). A Certified Nursing Assistant often works for and just below RN’s and LPN’s, often serving as an intermediary between patients and the RN or LPN. Many CNA’s go on to become licensed LPN’s or RN’s, so there is typically a high demand for skilled CNA’s, making the post-course job hunt much easier than it typically is for other medical positions. It is estimated that demand for CNA’s will grow by over 20% in the next decade as increasing numbers of “baby boomers” retire and advance into old age.

Because a CNA holds a certificate, Certified Nursing Assistants often earn more competitive salaries than medical assistants and orderlies, who, though they often work with CNA’s in the same facilities, are not charged with direct patient care and usually complete more routine tasks under the direct supervision of doctors and nurses. Orderlies and assistant positions do not require a certificate, which sets them just below a CNA in terms of training and ability. Most CNA’s earn an hourly wage, typically between $16-20 per hour, depending on the location and demand.

What does a CNA do?

Because a Certified Nursing Assistant provides more personal care to individual patients, CNA’s are often required to provide both immediate physical as well as emotional support to patients and their families. In the US, most Certified Nursing Assistants work with the elderly or permanently disabled, finding part-time and full-time opportunities in a variety of venues: hospitals, hospice facilities, nursing homes, assistant living communities, as well as in private homes.

The United State Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks down the tasks of a Certified Nursing Assistant with this CNA job description:

  • Respond to patient signals or intercom to determine patients’ needs.
  • Turn or reposition patients who are immobile.
  • Help assist patients to perform daily living activities (i.e. getting out of bed, bathing, dressing, using the toilet, standing, walking, or exercising).
  • Ensure patients receive proper dietary nutrition by reviewing patients’ dietary restrictions, food allergies, and preferences daily.
  • Measure as well as record food or liquid intake and/or urinary and fecal output, while monitoring changes.
  • Record vital signs, including: temperature, blood pressure, pulse, respiration rate.
  • Gather information from caregivers, nurses, and doctors about patient condition, activities, and treatment plans.
  • Observe or examine patients in order to detect symptoms that may require medical attention, such as open wounds, bruises, or blood in their urine.
  • Observe and report patient behavior, patient complaints, or physical symptoms to nurses.
  • Remind patients to take prescribed medications or nutritional supplements.

Though many of the day-to-day tasks of a CNA aren’t exactly glamorous, a CNA is required to utilize a variety of mechanical and technological medical equipment in their profession, including:

  • Medical database software
  • Heating and cooling packs
  • Thermometers
  • Wheelchairs and transfer belts
  • Shower chairs
  • Defibrillators
  • Catheters

A CNA is usually the individual in a facility who has the most ‘hands-on’ experience with individual patients, and as such they are required to use advanced interpersonal skills to provide both exemplary customer service and advanced monitoring and diagnostic abilities to ascertain the needs of patients at all times. For example, a CNA is expected to provide emotional support as well as knowledge of medical treatment for a variety of diagnoses — this is especially true for Hospice CNA’s, one of the professions most in-demand positions.