What is a CNA? Is a CNA Career Right for You?
Are you interested in a career as a CNA? And what is a CNA, anyway? We’ve created this website to answer all of your questions. On this page, we’ll tell you about what the work requires, the CNA salary (and how to increase it), and the steps you’ll need to take to get your career started. If you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers!
First things first: a CNA is a “certified nurse assistant.” He or she is a trained medical professional who provides comfort to the sick and works with a health care team to provide medical interventions to the ill and infirm. CNAs monitor vital signs and basic measurements of health, assist patients with personal hygiene and activities of daily living (ADLs), provide transportation and facilitate movement, and document important information related to the patient’s health.
Certified nurse assistants help patients when they are at their most vulnerable, and they do considerable good for people in their time of need. If you’re interested in a career as a CNA, we’re proud of you!
What Are a CNA’s Job Responsibilities?
CNAs provide a range of care for patients, and make a significant contribution a patient’s health and well being. Let’s take a closer look at each job task.
Provide Basic Medical Care. Certified nurse assistants contribute to the ongoing health and healing of patients by performing many basic medical tasks. A CNA may be responsible to:
- check a patient’s vital signs, including temperature, pulse, respiration, and blood pressure;
- clean and dress wounds;
- maintain care of the patient’s skin, to prevent pressure ulcers, abrasions, and bed sores;
- assist with the utilization and sterilizing of prosthetic appliances;
- help nurses to prepare patients for surgeries; and
- record patients’ height and weight and other physical data.
It is important to note that a CNA will never be asked to perform duties that s/he has not been trained to do. Every medical professional is trained to do very specific jobs, and hospitals and medical centers have very strict rules about who completes certain tasks. People who are new to the field sometimes ask, “What is a CNA supposed to do when s/he does not know how to provide care for a patient?” CNA training classes (which we will discuss later) provide all the relevant information on what tasks are expected of a CNA.
Assist with Ambulation and Movement. For many patients, moving can be very difficult. Some patients have lost the use of their limbs, and cannot walk; others may not have fine motors skills, and are not able to use their hands to grasp objects; some may not be able to use the muscles in their face, and will have difficulty speaking or eating. A CNA is the member of the health care team who helps patients with some of the tasks related to movement. A CNA may:
- help patients get out of bed, and assist with ambulation (which is the medical term for “walking”);
- aid patients so that they can rearrange their position in beds or in chairs;
- feed patients who have difficulty eating; and
- use lifting devices to transport residents for surgery, examinations, or therapy.
Ambulation is an important aspect of good health, and a nursing assistant will help patients with ambulation in an effort to improve their physical well-being.
Help Perform ADLs. ADL is a term that stands for “activities of daily living.” ADLs are the “self-care tasks” that people every day, in every culture around the world, complete. Some examples would be eating and feeding, hygiene, grooming, toileting, using medical devices, and moving around one’s personal space.
Many people who are patients in hospitals or residents in nursing homes have difficulty completing personal tasks, and it is a CNA’s responsibility to help them with:
Eating and Feeding. A CNA may help a patient arrange his or her food or feed them directly, and will record all foods and liquids consumed to make sure that the patient receives proper nourishment.
Hygiene. An important part of health care is assisting patients with hygiene. A CNA will help a person bathe (or, if the person cannot move, give them a bath in a shower or tub or directly in the bed), and aid with personal grooming tasks such as combing hair, brushing teeth, and putting on clothes. If the person cannot move at all, or is not aware of his or her surroundings, a CNA may complete all of those tasks for the patient.
Toileting. A nurse assistant may aid with toileting, and use bedpans, enemas, or catheters to help the patient dispel bowel movements or pass urine.
Medical Devices. A CNA may attend to patients as they set up or use medical devices that assist with their day-to-day living, such hearing aids, measurement machines, and mobility devices.
Many nurse assistants report that although helping with ADLs can sometimes be difficult, it is the part of the job that they find most satisfying. Attending to someone’s most basic physical needs can be a very rewarding act of kindness and caring.
Observe Patients. Changes in a patient’s behavior may be a signal that his or her health is in danger. Because nurse assistants spend a great deal of one-on-one time with their patients–perhaps more than any other member of the health care team—they need to be high alert for any changes that might signal a threat. A CNA will look for variations in a person’s vital signs; physical alterations on a person’s body, such as the development of a bed sore or a change in skin tone; a shift in speech patterns, such as slurred words; a noticeable difference in a patient’s mental state, including a lack of lucidity or hallucinations; or a shift in the person’s daily routine, such as excessive sleep or a reduced appetite.
The CNA’s role as “team observer” cannot be overstated—very often, the health of a patient will be determined by how quickly an illness or disorder is treated, and because CNAs are often the first on the scene, their opportunity to report changes in the patient’s demeanor or physical health can mean the difference between life or death.
Documenting Tasks and Sharing Info About Patient Health. It may sound strange, but one of the most important factors to determine a patient’s health is the accuracy of his medical documentation. When a health care team has accurate and detailed notes about a patient’s health, they are able to treat him or her effectively; when they do not have accurate notes, or are not able to access the documents central to the patient’s health, treatment may be impaired and the patient’s health may be at risk.
CNAs are tasked to take specific notes and record every action and interaction with the patient. They record vital signs and any changes to a patient’s vital signs that occur during a shift; data related to the patient’s food intake and hydration; physical information about a patient’s movements; and personalized data about how the patient was able to contribute to his own care (ie, if s/he needed full assistance, some assistance, or no assistance).
Documentation is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of nursing, but it is vitally important component of the job. It provides an historical account of the patient’s health over time, and allows medical staff to operate as an efficient treatment unit. For more information about documentation and how CNAs are responsible for accurate reporting, we’ve written a post about recording interactions and data.
Advocate for Patients. For many patients, medical centers are scary places. The nurses and doctors always seem busy, and getting the attention of someone who can provide help can be difficult. A CNA acts as a liaison between the patient and the medical staff, and can encourage nurses and doctors to spend more time with the patient. S/he can also help orient patients and their families into the hospital system upon admission, share vital information about the medical center’s policies and regulations, and alert family members of any services that might be available to them.
While it isn’t technically part of the job description and it isn’t part of a CNA salary, being an advocate for the patient and providing a bit of extra care s/he can make a huge difference in the quality of a patient’s experience. The best CNAs can advocate for their patients.
Provide Comfort, Privacy, and Dignity. The tasks that CNAs are asked to complete will bring them within a patient’s personal space, and the ADLs that may need to be performed (such as eating and toileting and bathing) are very private acts which the patient is accustomed to performing alone. Because CNAs assist with activities that may make the patient feel uncomfortable, they must interact in a way that promotes a caring and understanding environment, and one without judgment. They are to give the patient privacy whenever possible, and ensure that every member of the health care team treats the patient in a way that is respectful and courteous. Patients’ rights are a very important part of being a nursing assistant.
CNA training courses spend a great deal of time emphasizing the importance of dignity and respect, and detail practices and procedures that allow a nurse assistant to help with personal tasks, but do so in a way that is gentle and considerate.
Do you have what it takes to be a CNA? Click here to read more about the personality traits and CNA skills that you’ll need to be an effective nurse.
So now that we’ve answered the question—what is a CNA—let’s take a look at where CNAs are employed, and what a CNA salary looks like.
What Does a CNA Salary Look Like?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for certified nurse assistants was $24,010 (or, roughly, $11.54 per hour). That figure means that of all the CNAs in the United States (and it is estimated that there are over one million), half of those surveyed made more than $24,010 per year, and half of those surveyed made less than $24,010. The top ten percent of earners made $34,580 or more. And while income may vary in different parts of the United States, many nurse assistants are able to substantially increase their income by working double shifts.
Here’s a state-by-state breakdown nurse assistant salaries. The first number is the hourly wage of a CNA, and the second number represents the annual salary of a CNA:
New Hampshire–$13.73; $28,550
New Jersey–$13.51; $28,090
New Mexico–$12.51; $26,010
New York–$15.45; $32,130
North Carolina–$10.99; $22,860
North Dakota–$13.49; $28,070
Rhode Island–$13.82; $28,750
South Carolina–$10.69; $22,240
South Dakota–$11.18; $23,250
Washington D.C.–$14.29; $29,730
West Virginia–$10.79; $22,440
In terms of job outlook, the future is bright for nurse assistants! The BLS estimates that job growth for the position will grow by 20% through 2020, which is a much higher rate of growth than for jobs in other industries.
Where Do CNAs Work?
CNAs have a wide range of professional opportunities, and are able to find work in most places where medical procedures or treatments are performed—especially places that care for patients who are need long-term or extended care. Nurse assistants work in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers, outpatient facilities, long-term mental health facilities, urgent care centers, assisted living facilities, and many other places where one-on-one care for patients is needed. Some CNAs also gain certification to work as home health aides, and travel to peoples’ residences to provide care.
Who Do CNAs Work With?
Nurse assistants usually work as part of a health care team. When a patient enters a hospital or medical center, s/he is assigned a group of medical professionals, called a health care team, that will look after every aspect of the patient’s well-being. The entire function of that team is to nurse the patient back to health, or, if the patient has a long-term disease or disorder, to provide treatment that will enable the patient to live a healthier and more rewarding life.
Each health care team is different, but most are made up of a doctor or advanced nurse practitioner (APN); a registered nurse (RN); a licensed practical nurse (LPN), who is sometimes referred to as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN); and the certified nurse assistant (CNA). Some health care teams also include other members, such as a social worker, dietitian, or physical therapist. If you’d like to know more about the health care team, we’ve written a post about the responsibilities of each member, as well as a post about the duties of the different types of nurses.
How Do I Become a CNA?
If you’re thinking about becoming a CNA, we salute you! The work is difficult, but it provides a tangible benefit that helps people in their most significant time of need. Each state has different requirements to become a CNA, but here are the requirements that are true for every state in the U.S. In order to become a CNA, an applicant must–
- complete a CNA training program that consists of 75 or more training hours;
- pass a state-administered certification exam that tests the book knowledge and physical techniques taught in the training program; and
- become listed in the state’s nurse aid registry.
Some states require a high school diploma; others require a graduation equivalency degree. If you’d like to know about your state’s CNA certification requirements, you can check your state’s homepage and go to their nursing section for more information. As an example, here is the nursing page for the state of Indiana, and the nursing page for the state of Missouri.
The good news is, CNA training programs are relatively quick, and usually take only a few months to complete; the exam is a little intimidating, but it’s not too difficult to pass; and once you’ve passed your exam, all it takes is a phone call get listed on the nurse’s registry. Becoming a CNA takes some effort, but it is definitely something that you can do.
Where Can I Find CNA Training Programs?
There are many different types of educational institutions that will prepare you for a career as a nurse assistant. You’ll be able to find CNA training programs at:
- Community Colleges. Many CNAs receive their training at community schools or county colleges, where the tuition is very affordable and the instruction can be top-notch. Private colleges may also offer CNA training, but those courses may be a bit pricier than community schools. Here is an example of a community college in Nevada that offers a certified nursing assistant program.
- Vocational or Technical Schools. These may be a part of a local high school, or may be a stand-alone institution where teachers help community members develop job skills.
- Hospitals and Nursing Homes. Many medical facilities offer on-site training programs, and some even offer employment when you are finished. Not bad!
- Private Agencies. Some agencies offer classes, but require that you work for their agency after graduation and pass your examination.
- Government Programs. Many states offer CNA training programs for residents. There is competition to get into state-run programs and entry may be difficult, but they are definitely worth checking out. You can contact your state’s Department of Health or the Board of Nursing to see if your state offers any opportunities.
- The Red Cross. The classes offered at The Red Cross are excellent, and because the organization is so well-known, graduates of the program have a very easy time finding work. You can check out the Red Cross CNA program to see if they have any classes in your area.
We’ve included posts about classes in each of these places, and have included directories about where you can go for classes. However, if you want to find training programs on your own, states usually list all of the accredited training programs on the state website.
Quick note about classes: It’s important to be certain that the training program you choose is accredited. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) is one of the best-recognized national accrediting organizations, but there are other accreditation organizations as well. You can check your program’s accreditation status at the CCNE website.
Online CNA Training vs. In-Class CNA Training
Distance learning is a hugely valuable tool that many schools and colleges use to make the educational experience easier for students. Many CNA programs have adopted an online program, and have internet-based lessons into their curriculum. The material that online programs cover is basically the same as the material covered in a traditional, in-class setting.
However, it is worth noting that “online CNA program” does not usually mean that the entire course is online. Because a CNA’s job requires skills related to physical movement (for example, properly helping a patient move or taking a patient’s blood pressure), some in-class hours are required. These hours are usually called “lab” or “clinical day” hours. While the knowledge-based and “book learning” may be done online, there is usually an in-class component that a CNA student will have to show up for.
Here’s an example of an online CNA course, from Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. As you can see, many of the classes are online, but others require students to attend training sessions at a medical training facility. It’s also important to note that unless the student has logged the appropriate hours online, s/he is not able to attend the in-class training facility—those online hours must be completed punctually before the in-class training can be attended.
Online classes are an excellent option, and we fully recommend them if you are able to take them. Many schools even offer online classes and night-time in-class training sessions, because they know that day-time work hours are often difficult for people to attend. The freedom to do coursework when it fits into your schedule can be hugely beneficial, especially if you have a spouse, kids, or another job!
If you’ve got more questions about online schools, and whether you can attend them—don’t worry, we’ve written posts about those topics, too!
What’s the Difference Between a CNA and a Home Health Aide?
A home health aide (HHA) is a trained professional who performs tasks that are very similar to a certified nurse assistant. S/he will help patients with personal hygiene and daily living activities, assist with transportation and facilitate movement, and document information related to a patient’s health. There are some differences, however:
- instead of working in a hospital or medical facility, home health aides usually travel to the patient’s place of habitation;
- training to become a home health is much shorter, and can be completed in just a few weeks; and
- home health aides earn much less than certified nurse assistants (see below for more information).
Every state has different requirements about becoming a home health aide, and if you’re already a CNA, getting a HHA certificate is usually very simple.
A Career as a Nursing Assistant
So, what is a CNA? A CNA is an important member of a health care team, who helps return sick people to health. As you can see, certified nurse assistants provide an important service, and they provide assistance to people when they are most in need.
We are proud of the work that CNAs do, and if you decide to go into the field, we want you to succeed! You can take the next step and learn about the cost of CNA classes or learn about different types of nursing careers. And, if you have a question that is not addressed on this site, please email us and we’ll include a post about your inquiry. Thank you for visiting our page, and stop back whenever you need to learn more!
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