Medical Assistant to RN Programs

Medical assistants are on the front lines of health care. They are the first to greet patients when they arrive, and they learn a plethora of information by working so closely with physicians. However, some medical assistants hope to expand their scope and concentrate on a more clinical patient care role by advancing to become a registered nurse.

What Is a Medical Assistant?

A medical assistant is an unlicensed health care worker who usually works in outpatient clinics. Their main role is to support providers (i.e. physicians, nurse practitioners, or PAs) by performing both clinical and administrative duties. Examples of clinical duties may include:

  • Taking vital signs
  • Documenting a brief history or chief complaint
  • Giving injections
  • Performing simple wound care
  • Performing other procedures such as suture removal, ear lavage, etc.
  • Managing virtual and telephonic messages

Administrative duties that medical assistants may perform include:

  • Scheduling appointments
  • Receiving phone calls
  • Billing
  • Managing the equipment and supplies of a medical office

Learn more about becoming a medical assistant.

How Do You Become an RN?

There are different paths to becoming an RN. The method to attain an RN license is a personal choice; some prefer a straight shot through RN school, while some prefer a step-wise approach in order to space out the stress of school, financial expenditures, and reduce the time demands of school.

General Education

Whichever path the MA chooses to become an RN, they should research any prerequisites that may be needed for both the nursing program and for graduation from the college or university. Some MAs may need to repeat certain courses such as anatomy and physiology. General education courses must be completed as well, to include English, math, humanities, communications, history, etc. It’s a good idea to knock these out of the way.

Select a Nursing Program

This is where the decision is made to either apply directly to an RN program or consider becoming an LPN/LVN first, then move on to an RN degree. If choosing an RN program, the MA would need to choose either an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree program. The ADN program is about 2-3 years in length, while the BSN program is around 4 years.

Is There an MA to RN Bridge Program?

Unfortunately, there are not any MA to RN bridge programs in the traditional setting. The reason is because the curriculum is so different, and RNs must complete collegiate-level general education requirements (along with completing the nursing program) to receive their degree. However, some courses required for medical assisting can count towards a degree program for nursing. This may help shave some time off for an MA looking to become an RN. MAs should have their medical assisting transcripts available and contact various programs to see if some of their MA courses count towards the graduation requirements.

Difference Between a Medical Assistant and an RN

While both MAs and RNs works on the forefront of patient care, their education, roles and scope of practice are very, very different.  They can both be assigned to the same care team, but each has his/her own duties to perform.

Education

Medical assisting programs are usually between nine months and two years in length, depending on the school or program. Examples of courses medical assistants must complete may include anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, billing and coding, office management, and mathematics. Additionally, they learn technical skills such as procedures, injections, and medical office operations.

Registered nurse programs can be either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program, with the bachelor’s degree program being the longer of the two. In either pathway, after completing the necessary prerequisites (English, math, history, humanities, anatomy, physiology etc.), students delve into more specific nursing coursework. Examples include:

  • Pharmacology
  • Nursing care of the medical/surgical patient
  • Nursing care of pediatric patients
  • OBGYN nursing care
  • Psychiatric nursing care
  • Leadership and management
  • Community/ Public health

With each of the above courses, nursing students learn bedside tasks that are needed for the care of various types of patients. For example, they learn administering different medications (by different routes), starting IVs, placing and removing catheters, and other skills.

Scope of Practice

The scope of practice of an MA is very different that an RN’s. Registered nurses have a high degree of autonomy and clinical decision-making ability, whereas medical assistants can only perform duties under the direction of a provider. They may also not perform invasive procedures (such as IV starts and catheter insertion). However, they are able to administer certain injections, such as vaccines.

An example of the difference in scope of practice is as follows: a patient presents to the clinic complaining of three days of left shoulder pain. Both the MA and the RN can collect any additional information and take vital signs on the patient. They could also both perform an EKG. However, the MA must take any data collected to an RN, NP, PA, or MD for them to determine the outcome.

The registered nurse, on the other hand, is trained in comprehensive physical assessment, forms a nursing diagnosis, and develops a plan for the patient. Essentially, the RN can triage the patient in order to be seen, sent to the emergency room, or to book an appointment for another day based on his or her assessment findings.

Duties

Because the scope of practice for the MA and RN are quite different, their duties also differ. The nurse’s role is more clinically-focused, while the MA is more administrative (although they do perform clinical tasks). Specific tasks may vary depending on the setting, but nurses may perform complex and simple wound care, start IVs, administer medications, and triage patients.

Medical assistants are responsible for bringing patients to exam rooms, taking vitals, reviewing the patient’s medications, verifying allergies, and collecting a brief history of present illness. They may also perform clinical tasks such as administering vaccines and removing sutures. However, they also are skilled in running a medical office. They are trained in billing and coding, and help keep the provider’s schedule on track.

MA vs RN Licensing & Certification

Medical assistants are unlicensed healthcare professionals. At the end of their medical assisting program, they receive a certificate of completion. Some MAs opt to become certified, and there are organizations that allow MAs to study and sit for the certification exam, as outlined by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).

Registered nurses, upon competing a nursing program, must take the NCLEX-RN exam to become licensed. Then, they must apply for licensure in their state. They must ensure all requirements are met and application fees paid. Requirements for licensure vary per state, but usually nurses are required to have graduated from an accredited program, pass the NCLEX, provide all transcripts, submit a background check, and pay applicable fees.

Salary Advantages

The salary differential between MAs and RNs are also quite different. Along with a wider scope of practice and more patient care responsibility, RNs earn (on average) double that of MAs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary of MAs is $32,480, compared to $70,000 per year for RNs. However, there are many factors that determine a worker’s salary; city, state, facility, and a collective bargaining environment will all have an impact.

Read more about a medical assistant salary.

MA to RN Transition

It’s crucial for MAs to recognize that working as an RN is very different than an MA. Registered nurses do not just perform nursing tasks. They utilize a complex nursing process to care for patients, which is taught in nursing school along with critical thinking and assessment skills. The nursing process involves a patient assessment, creating a nursing diagnosis (which is NOT the same as a medical diagnosis), developing and implementing a plan of care, and evaluating the results to treatment. This process is used all day, every day by nurses; it’s a unique way of thinking and the way nurses approach patient care.

Registered nurses are also considered leaders of the healthcare team. They check and direct staff. Medical assistants transitioning to an RN role need to be aware that they will be the go-to person for patient care concerns or issues. They will need to be the one to make critical thinking decisions and be responsible for patient care outcomes. While this may sound daunting, MAs should be reassured that these skills are developed in nursing school, and even when practicing as an RN, resources are readily available.

RN Program Requirements

While each nursing school has specific admission requirements, most require the following:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • GPA of 2.5 or higher (some schools prefer a higher GPA) in prerequisite courses
  • Complete specific prerequisite courses such as
    • Anatomy/Physiology
    • Chemistry
    • Statistics
    • English
    • Psychology
    • Human development
  • Complete the TEAS test

Some nursing programs admit students by a lottery system, and some select preferentially based on GPA/grades, prior healthcare experience, foreign language competency, etc. It’s important that medical assistants looking for a nursing program determine specific admission requirements.

Cost and Duration of an RN Program

The cost of an RN program varies by the school as well as the type of program. Tuition can range from a few thousand dollars to over $20,000. However, there are additional costs associated with the nursing program such as books, fees, supplies (i.e. stethoscopes and other medical equipment, scrubs, shoes, etc.), and parking. Many schools offer some type of financial aid which helps to offset the costs. Additionally, if employed as a medical assistant, some employers offer tuition reimbursement for MAs who wish to go back to school for their RN.

The duration of the nursing program also varies. Assuming all prerequisites need to be completed, an associate’s degree program at a community college usually take around two years, while a bachelor’s degree program can take around four years. However, if the MA has taken courses in anatomy and physiology, he or she may not need to repeat those prerequisites which would make the duration shorter.

Students can take any prerequisites as a part-time student; however, upon admission to the nursing program there are more time demands that may lead to a more full-time status. Each program is different, so prospective students should find out before enrolling.

Online RN Programs

Online programs are extremely beneficial for working MAs. However, prospective students should remember that supervised clinical practice in a healthcare facility is a requirement for licensure, so RN programs cannot be 100% online. Some advantages of online programs include:

  • Flexibility
  • Self-paced learning
  • Individualized learning
  • Cost-effectiveness (no travel/commuting or parking expenses)
  • More school options to select from

While online programs seem like a dream, there are disadvantages as well. Cons to online learning include:

  • Reduced peer-to-peer interaction
  • Reduced instructor/student interaction
  • Technology costs
  • Must have internet access

While medical assisting is an extremely rewarding career, registered nursing is a way for MAs to expand their knowledge base and operate in a broader scope. No matter how an MA chooses to get there, becoming an RN is an excellent career choice.

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