What is a CNA? The Perfect First Step for Aspiring Nurses
By Hannah Meinke on 11/04/2019
You’re considering becoming a nurse or pursuing a direct patient care career, but you’re not quite sure if you’re cut out for the healthcare field. You want to help others and the opportunities available within healthcare sound appealing, but becoming a nurse seems like a big commitment. You don’t want to waste all that time and money on a career that turns out to be wrong for you.
If this sounds like you, you may want to consider becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA). Maybe you’ve heard this title before, but it’s hard to keep all the acronyms straight. What exactly is a CNA and what is their role within healthcare?
If you’re looking for answers about this potential next step, keep reading for more insight into whether this is the right path for you.
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What is a CNA?
There’s no shame in being a little confused about what a CNA actually is—the healthcare field can be a maze of confusing or tricky acronyms for job titles and credentials. As we mentioned before, a CNA is a certified nursing assistant. This common entry-level role is responsible for a variety of basic patient care tasks—things like moving, feeding and bathing patients—and play an important role in ensuring healthcare facilities run smoothly.
It’s important to note that not all nursing assistants or nursing aides are certified—"CNA" is often used as a broad catchall term for this role. Depending on requirements that may vary by state, nursing assistants can also be registered (RNA), licensed (LNA) or state tested and approved (STNA).
What does a CNA do?
Wendie Howland spent a gap year working as a CNA in a geriatric ward. Today she is a legal nurse consultant and life care planner with Howland Health Consulting. “The advantages were almost intuitive,” Howland says. “I got very familiar and comfortable with patient handling, bathing, mobility issues, feeding, taking vital signs, and doing simple treatments.”
As a nursing assistant, you will provide some of the most personal care a patient receives. It may not be the most glamorous work, but that’s the reality of working in healthcare—it’s not always pretty. If you can give dignified care to patients, many of whom are struggling with basic self care tasks, you will be well prepared to make the most of this job.
Howland notes that these tasks cannot be seen as the “be-all, end-all of patient care.” However, she says, students and CNAs who recognize this will be in a better place to learn the “real skills in nursing — assessment, planning and implementation, and delegation.” Not only is this a great way to develop your healthcare skills, but it is an opportunity to provide both patients and other nurses with the support they need.
You can expect to gain experience in medical technology for taking vitals, charting, communicating patient needs to nurses, and perhaps most importantly, caring for patients when they cannot care for themselves.
Where do CNAs work?
Nursing homes or long-term care facilities are some of the most common places for nursing assistants to work. Working with older patients can be challenging—ailments like dementia are common in this population and overall loss of function among geriatric patients means they’ll need thoughtful care and assistant. For those considering a nursing career further down the line, this can be an excellent way to gauge if working with geriatric populations is a good fit for you.
Nursing assistants are also eligible to work with some patients in their own homes—typically through a home health agency. This will allow you to develop deeper relationships as you will be matched with one patient at a time.
Finally, if you want exposure to other medical professions, working in a hospital will give you a chance to see other nurses and doctors in action. However, hospitals may prefer experienced nursing assistants, so most choose to start at a nursing home or in personal care and then transfer to hospital work.
How do I become a nursing assistant?
One of the most attractive things about this career option is that you don’t need a college education to apply for a nursing assistant training program. In most states, you will simply need to be 18 years or older, have a high school diploma or GED, and pass a few screenings.
That makes nursing assistant training ideal for high school grads who want to see if healthcare suits them before they invest in undergraduate education. It’s also a good option if you just want to gain some hands-on life experience and build your interpersonal skills.
No matter your motivation, you’ll need to complete a nursing assistant training program and then you’ll take your state’s CNA exam. Though the requirements will vary from state to state, it will be some combination of written and skills testing. In Minnesota, for example, aspiring nursing assistants will need to pass a multiple choice exam and demonstrate five skills including catheter care and sanitary practices.
What is the career outlook for a CNA?
If you’re considering nursing assistant training, you naturally want to know if employment of this position is growing. The good news is that employment of nursing assistants is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow 9 percent by 2028, which is faster than the national average for all occupations.1
Is CNA training right for you?
Becoming a nursing assistant is the first step into the field for many nurses and healthcare professionals. If you’re intrigued by the field but aren’t ready to commit to a long-term program, getting started as a nursing assistant can be the perfect way for you to get your foot in the door. CNA training offers a great opportunity to gain experience and see what you think of the healthcare world, all while developing your skills and earning a living.
If you’ve never been one to shy away from a hard task, no matter how messy or personal—if you can see a person for more than their needs, you are already on your way to becoming an outstanding CNA. All that’s left is to find the right program.
Your first step into the nursing world
Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is a CNA?” you probably have a good idea if this option is the route you'd like to take into the healthcare field. This entry-level role is an excellent way for you to build healthcare experience and get a feel for the field prior to committing to a longer-term program. Need help keeping nursing-related credentials straight as you map out your education options? Our article, "A Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Different Levels of Nursing Credentials" can help you get a better understanding of the potential paths ahead of you.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2016, it has since been updated. Insight from Howland remains from the original version.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed September, 2019] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.