What is a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant)

What is a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant)

Patients need a number of needs taken care of – and that’s what CNAs are for. Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs for short), take an intimate, hands-on approach when looking over their patients: they bathe them, dress them, and help them with any basic activity in their daily lives. CNAs work under the supervision of either a Registered Nurse (RN) or a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN).

What is a CNA?

Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) take care of people who are physically and/or mentally unable to take care of themselves. They work in a variety of settings such as clinics, mental health facilities, and hospitals all while taking care of patients of all ages. CNAs can also work for individual patients, making in-home visits to make sure the patient is taken care of and has some companionship. A lot of certified nursing assistants work at assisted living facilities and nursing homes, providing medical services and treatment for elderly patients.

CNAs provide an important service to society. Due to the growing number of patients worldwide, especially among the elderly, patients wouldn’t receive the necessary medical care if it wasn’t for certified nursing assistants. As with any career, CNAs can expect both rewards and challenges in their careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, certified nursing assistants should expect their job to grow by 11% by 2026. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the baby boomer generation is aging and needs more medical care. Certified nursing assistants can expect to earn around $29,000 a year or $34,000 a year if they work for the government.

What does a CNA do?

CNAs take care of disabled patients, whether they’re physically or mentally disabled in any way, and are supervised by licensed nursing professionals. While patients see a number of healthcare professionals throughout the day, they most often interact with certified nursing assistants. While the specific tasks a CNA is in charge of largely depends on their specific place of employment, prospective certified nursing assistants can expect to carry out a number of basic duties in order to effectively take care of a patient’s recovery and comfort.

Certified nursing assistants can expect to prepare rooms for general patient admissions, stock supplies in the room as needed, gather any supplies that registered nurses and MDs need, and making sure the rooms are clean and the linens are replaced. CNAs also take care of patients by dressing their wounds, feeding them (while recording and measuring their food intake), bathing them, and taking their temperature, blood pressure and other vital signs. Other responsibilities include combing, shaving, nail clipping, and brushing patient’s teeth, documenting their health issues and reporting it to the supervising nurses, helping with medical procedures, turning and repositioning bedridden patients as needed, and answering patient calls as they come through.

Why is a CNA so important?

CNAs give support to both patients and their families through emotional support. While doctors make sure the patient is medically taken care of, it is the certified nursing assistant who spends time with the patient and makes sure they’re emotionally and spiritually taken care of. CNAs are the backbone of the nursing industry. They should new responsibilities as they come along and have genuine concern for their patients. Certified nursing assistants help patients cope with their illness and pain through massages, humor, distractions, and other non-drug methods. They keep track of a patient’s condition and alert the doctor of any changes, whether positive or negative.

CNAs perform a number of tasks to make sure patients of all ages receive the care they need. They perform the following duties:

  • Dressing: Certified nursing assistants dress up patients as needed, as well as feed them. Some patients have sutures and other characteristics which the CNA will need to handle with care.
  • Meals: When feeding patients, CNAs need to follow the guidelines provided by the attending doctor and maintain records of the patient’s daily meal consumption.
  • Assist Medical Procedures: Well-trained CNAs will be expected to assist in medical procedures from time to time, such as closing the drips or drawing blood.
  • Bathing: Patients who have undergone certain injuries and surgical procedures cannot bathe themselves, which is why CNAs are expected to bathe them. Some patients will have undergone critical procedures such as open heart surgery, so they need to be careful when giving patients a bath.
  • Make the Beds: Whether it’s maintaining the whole room clean, getting rid of any soiled sheets, changing the sheets for clean ones, or taking care of the bedpans and disposing the wastes, CNAs are expected to make sure patients have a comfortable stay.
  • Medical Equipment: Sometimes, certified nursing assistants will be asked to look over medical equipment. It can be anything from sterilizing and cleaning them, moving them from one chamber to another (inside the hospital), or organizing the equipment in a doctor’s cabinet so the patients can be properly examined.

How to Become a CNA

There is a high turnover rate for certified nursing assistants. This is mostly due to CNAs deciding to progress in their careers and become registered nurses. Fortunately, this means there are many opportunities to enter the field of certified nursing assisting. The highest need for certified nursing assistants will be in the geriatric field, as hospital departments, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities always need an extra hand for taking care of the elderly. While the job may be stressful and long, most nursing assistants find the job rewarding. Plus, it will prepare you for a future career as a registered nurse if you decide to go that path.

Unlike other professional roles in the nursing industry, CNAs do not have to hold a college degree. However, this does not mean that just anyone can work as a CNA. Certified nursing assistants have to go through training, which will earn them a postsecondary non-degree diploma or certificate. Since credentials depend entirely on the state that issues them, those who wish to become CNAs must enroll in state approved training programs. They must also pass a state certification examination.

CNA Education Requirements and Training

As far as education requirements go, prospective certified nursing assistants must have either obtained a high school diploma or a GED, as well as training in the field of nursing assisting. There are a number of educational institutions that offer CNA programs such as medical facilities, trade schools, and community colleges. However, before enrolling, make sure that the programs are state-approved by the state nursing board and the National League for Nursing Accredited Commission (NLNAC).

Prospective nursing assistants who complete their CNA training are required to pass a CNA certification exam. The exams have a written component and a practical one. The written component has a number of multiple-choice questions. The test will be delivered in a group setting and prospective CNAs will have 90 minutes to complete it. The practical component will be delivered in a one on one setting between the test taker and a test proctor. Test takers must demonstrate their clinical skills in four randomly selected areas in order to show they’re competent. Each test taker will have 30 minutes to complete this part of the test.

Nursing education programs of all levels are monitored and evaluated by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The U.S. Department of Education has oversight of the accreditation process and has a list of accredited nursing programs.

Certified Nursing Assistant Career Outlook

Certified nursing assistants can work in a variety of settings, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most CNAs work in hospitals, nursing care facilities, and assisted living facilities for the elderly. Certified nursing assistants can also work in other places such as community clinics, urgent care centers, and private doctors’ offices. CNAs can also work in hospices and work as health aides, helping patients and treating them in their own houses.

Salary and Employment

The overall healthcare industry is expected to grow in demand as the bay boomer generation ages and needs more medical attention. In 2012, there was a surge of over one million jobs in the healthcare field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, certified nursing assistants can expect to see a growth rate of around 21% within the next decade.

Prospective certified nursing assistants can expect a median salary of at least $26,590 a year. Salary largely depends on location. The highest median pay for certified nursing assistants can be found in government settings, such as working at a VA hospital, which is around $37,450. CNAs working in home healthcare services can expect to earn the lowest median salary at around $25,590.

The highest salary for certified nursing assistants is found in Washington, DC, with the average salary for a CNA in Washington, DC being $58,000 a year. The salaries there are about 25% higher than the average salary for CNAs across the nation. The top ten salaries across the nation for CNA positions are the following (on average):

  1. Washington, DC: $58,000 a year
  2. Massachusetts: $55,000 a year
  3. Connecticut: $53,000 a year
  4. Georgia: $53,000 a year
  5. Illinois: $52,000 a year
  6. California: $50,000 a year
  7. New Jersey: $50,000 a year
  8. Mississippi: $48,000 a year
  9. Alabama: $47,000 a year
  10. Maryland: $47,000 a year

The lowest salary for certified nursing assistants is found in Hawaii, with the average salary for a CNA in Hawaii being $29,000 a year. The salaries there are about 38% lower than the average salary for CNAs across the nation. The lowest ten salaries across the nation for CNA positions are the following (on average):

  • Minnesota: $40,000 a year
  • New Mexico: $40,000 a year
  • Arizona: $38,000 a year
  • Wyoming: $38,000 a year
  • Utah: $36,000 a year
  • South Dakota: $35,000 a year
  • Alaska: $34,000 a year
  • Nebraska: $34,000 a year
  • Idaho: $31,000 a year
  • Hawaii: $29,000 a year

As you can see, there is a big discrepancy between the highest salary for CNAs nationwide and the lowest salary for CNAs nationwide (about a $29,000 difference). However, for most states in the middle, the pay is relatively the same. Another thing to keep in mind when choosing which state to pursue your career in is the cost of living. While some states may offer higher pay, their cost of living may affect how much of that pay can be used for nonessential expenses.

Top 5 CNA Specialties

While CNA positions are considered entry-level positions, experience in different specialties can help a CNA move up the ladder. Although additional training may be needed, gaining experience in a specialization can garner some great rewards such as higher pay and better benefits.

The following are five popular specializations that CNAs can gain experience in:

  1. Cardiology Aide: Working in a hospital can lead to a number of experiences, such as working in the cardiology department. If you wish to become a cardiology aide, you may need additional training depending on your employer. If you pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree and become an RN, you can obtain a certification in cardiology. All of this will help you become eligible for several jobs in the area of cardiology.
  2. Geriatrics Aide: There are several jobs available to certified nursing assistants who want to specialize in work with the elderly. Since the baby boomer generation is aging, more and more nurses and nursing assistants will be needed on the geriatric side of healthcare. CNAs who wish to specialize in this area must be compassionate and emotionally strong, as patients are generally nearing the end of their lives and many pass away as part of life.
  3. Home Care Aide: CNAs who wish to work with patients in their homes don’t need any extra credentials or certifications but, like any other role, more experience can lead to higher pay and benefits. Working as a home care aid is one of the most popular roles for CNAs, as they can work one-on-one with a patient instead of dealing with multiple patients at once. The most patients a home care aide has to deal with is generally between three and four per day. If you prefer working somewhere other than a hospital or a nursing home and want an easier, more relaxed nursing setting, than this might be the role for you.
  4. Pediatrics Aide: If you like kids, then being a pediatric aide might be the role for you. Usually found in hospitals, pediatric aides generally work exclusively in the pediatric ward. While additional training may be needed, the position has many rewards. The workloads are often less overwhelming and pediatric aides can generally enjoy better benefits and more pay thanks to their advanced expertise.
  5. Psychiatry Aide: Working with patients who are mentally or emotionally disabled is challenging work for any healthcare professional. Patients can be unpredictable, tough to communicate with, and may even be violent at times. Despite how demanding the work is, many nursing assistants who specialize as psychiatry aides enjoy working with and helping those that society chooses to ignore. If you want to be an advocate for the mentally challenged and emotionally disturbed, then being a psychiatry aide might be the role for you.

Specializations are a great way for certified nursing assistants to grow and be prepared for a lifetime career in the healthcare field. However, keep in mind that CNAs will be limited in their roles. To be able to do more, consider becoming a registered nurse. The experience gained in these specialties will prepare you for the future if you decide to become an RN.

CNA Resources


What do I have to do to become a CNA?

To become a CNA, you must complete three steps before working in the field: education, skill training and certification. You must receive your education from a program that’s been approved by the state’s nursing board. Skill and clinical training will give you the hands-on experience you need to be prepared for your everyday responsibilities. Finally, you must pass your state’s certification exam.

What’s the average salary for a CNA?

Certified nursing assisting is one of the few non-college degree careers that offer a decent salary. While your specific pay will largely depend on the state you practice in, your employment setting, your specialization, and your own level of experience, the median pay for CNAs is generally around $26,590.

What’s so important about a nursing assistant certification?

There are several reasons why you should get your CNA certification. Certified CNAs are listed in the state’s Nurse Aide Registry, make more money, have more job opportunities, are considered for possible promotions, and can specialize in different areas. Most importantly, certification is the standard in the healthcare industry. Without certification, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a job as a CNA.

How long will it take me to complete a CNA program?

Program requirements depend on specific state regulations as well as the institution that’s offering the program. However, prospective certified nursing assistants should expect to spend at least four weeks (or 75 hours) training in their field. Check your state’s particular regulations and the programs that are near you.

Helpful Organizations, Societies & Agencies

The following organizations and agencies offer a number of resources for people wanting to enter the certified nursing assistant field and those who are currently working as CNAs. They each offer unique help, so click on each one to see how they can help your career move forward.

CNA Scholarship


List of CNA Programs


Ready for a fulfilling career in the world of healthcare? Then what are you waiting for? Enroll today in a CNA program near you and start making a difference in your life and the world around you.

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