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What Is a CNA? Job Description and Career Guide

A CNA or certified nursing assistant is an important position in any hospital setting. CNAs have many responsibilities that make them an integral part of the patient process in healthcare. While being a CNA is often considered an entry-level position, it is a great stepping stone to other healthcare professions. Being a CNA can help prepare you for nursing or healthcare management work in many ways, and is a fantastic place to start your career. 

CNA requirements will vary depending on where you live, but overall the general process is the same. Learn about CNA duties, how you can become one, and how you can use your nursing assistant experience to propel you into other health care professions. 

What does a CNA do?

There are many duties for nursing assistants. A certified nursing assistant helps patients with direct health care needs, often under the supervision of a nurse. Certified nursing assistants may also be called a nursing assistant, a nurse’s aid, or a patient care assistant. CNAs work directly with patients and nurses, helping with the many physical and complex tasks for patient care. 

Some of their responsibilities include:

  • Turning or moving patients

  • Gathering medical supplies

  • Bathing patients

  • Grooming patients by brushing their hair, teeth, shaving them, etc.

  • Feeding patients and documenting their food and liquid intake

  • Checking vital signs such as blood pressure and heart rate

  • Answering patient calls

  • Documenting information

  • Cleaning rooms and bed linens

  • Stocking supplies

  • Assisting with some medical procedures

  • Safety procedures

  • Transporting patients

  • Taking care of wounds

Different hospitals and facilities will have unique requirements and responsibilities for their CNAs. But in essence, certified nursing assistants help perform critical tasks that ensure patients are well-cared for and safe during their hospital stay. Checking vital signs, keeping patients clean, and other duties like this are extremely important for patient care and satisfaction.

Each state will have specific responsibilities that CNAs are eligible to perform, so the exact job roles may vary depending on where you live. 

Where do certified nursing assistant's work?

CNAs can be found in all kinds of healthcare settings including:

  • Hospitals

  • Long-term residential facilities

  • Nursing homes

  • Rehabilitation centers

  • Adult daycare centers

Nursing homes and adult care facilities are often the most common places where nursing assistants are needed. Rarely nursing assistants will work in clinical settings, but that doesn't happen very often.

In 2018 there were roughly 1,564,200 CNAs in the United States. And nursing care facilities employed the largest number of certified nursing assistants at 38%. Depending on where you live there may be different facilities hiring CNAs to help take on care tasks for patients. 

CNA education requirements.

CNAs have fairly limited healthcare duties partly because the educational requirements to become a certified nursing assistant are not as rigorous as other medical professions. Nursing assistants are the entry-level positions in a hospital or care facility, so the education and certification requirements tend to be less intensive than other health professionals, such as nurses. 

CNA educational requirements vary by state, but often include a state-approved training program. This can be offered at a high school, community college, vocational school, or even at a hospital. These CNA classes are typically 4-8 weeks long and detail how to care for patients, basic medical skills, and important ethical and moral understanding. There may be in-person or hands-on skill elements to help students be prepared for actually working with patients as well. 

CNA certification.

Again, different states will have unique requirements for the nursing assistant certification process. However, this often includes a written or oral exam, as well as a demonstration exam where students show their ability to perform certain tasks. This licensing is critical as it will be required for students to apply and be accepted for certain jobs. This licensing also ensures you have the knowledge and skills to work with real patients.

CNA certification exam.

The NNAAP or National Nurse Aide Assessment Program examination is required in many states for licensure as a CNA. This exam contains two parts, a written and oral exam, and must be passed to become licensed in many states. Your CNA program will help you find the NNAAP examination center in your area, help you find study resources, and more. 

CNA salary.

On average CNAs earn an hourly salary of around $16.04. This translates to an average annual salary of around $33,371 per year. This is an entry-level position and is often ideal for those just starting out working or those considering a future in nursing. The location where you work will play a large role in how much money you will make as well. 

CNA career outlook

While becoming a CNA is a great job opportunity in and of itself, for many a CNA role is a stepping stone toward a career in nursing or other healthcare areas. Those interested in a healthcare career may start out as a CNA to make sure they enjoy patient care, and to start learning how to interact with patients. 

For those who start out as a CNA and really enjoy working with patients, their work as a CNA will help them gain practical skills and experience, preparing them to become a nurse. Work as a CNA will help professionals gain experience working with patients and performing some medical procedures. There are even online nursing programs that can even help current CNAs begin working toward their RN licensure and BSN degree while they work. This can lead to a rewarding career in nursing, and eventually roles in nursing management and leadership.

Additionally, some CNAs may find that they love working in a healthcare setting but don’t enjoy direct patient care. Earning a CNA is a great way to find out if you like working with patients. If you find it’s not for you, there are other healthcare professions like health information management or health services coordination that could be a better fit.

If you’re interested in nursing or healthcare, getting started by working as a CNA can be a great option. 

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