CNA vs. PCA – What Are the Differences?

CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants) and PCAs (Patient Care Assistants) are terms that people sometimes use interchangeably. But, in reality, CNAs and PCAs are two very different jobs.

So, what are the differences between CNAs vs. PCAs?

That’s what we’re here to explain. Below we’ll cover what each job is and what it requires, including job duties and prerequisites. That way, if you’re deciding between careers in the medical field, you’ll have a full understanding of the differences between CNAs and PCAs.

General Differences Between CNAs and PCAs

As we mentioned, people often use the terms CNA and PCA interchangeably. That’s probably because both jobs deal with one-on-one patient care.

However, the day-to-day duties differ significantly. Prerequisite education and licensing requirements vary as well.

Let’s look at the differences in detail.

CNA Job Responsibilities and Duties

CNAs assist nurses in a variety of medical settings, including hospitals and hospices. They may also work in prisons, group homes, or as private, in-home aides.

The most common setting for a CNA to work within is a skilled nursing facility (SNF). There, they help provide 24-hour care for chronically ill patients or those recuperating from major surgery or illness.

CNA responsibilities will vary from setting to setting, but in general, they include:

  • Assisting patients with bathing
  • Changing wound dressings
  • Measuring vital signs such as blood pressure, height, and weight
  • Assisting in medical procedures
  • Setting up medical equipment for procedures
  • Helping patients rotate, move, or walk

PCA Job Responsibilities and Duties

PCAs are sometimes called “home care aides” because they tend to focus less on medical procedures and more on their patient’s daily care. PCAs may work at hospitals, long-term care facilities, or skilled nursing facilities where they may help nurses with basic things, like recording vitals or transferring patients.

More commonly, though, PCAs work in private patient homes. There, they assist elderly or chronically ill patients with daily tasks.

PCAs share some CNA responsibilities, like helping patients to bathe. However, PCAs tend to be more involved with care and comfort overall. They may also be a major point of contact between the patient and the patient’s family, as well as other caregivers.

PCA duties can vary depending on where they work but may include:

  • Doing patients’ laundry or running basic errands
  • Helping patients to eat, bathe, and dress
  • Administering medications
  • Drawing blood
  • Collecting lab specimens

CNA Education and Training

Becoming a CNA starts with a high school diploma or GED. Once a potential CNA obtains that, they need to complete a nurse assistant training program and certification exam.

Training programs and exam requirements vary by state, but all of them require training at an accredited institution, such as a community college, trade school, or medical training facility.

Before enrolling, potential CNAs need to ensure the training program they pick is accredited by more than a general education accrediting agency. Rather, the program needs accreditation from the state nursing board and the National League for Nursing Accredited Commission (NLNAC).

Most community colleges, trade schools, and medical training facilities will have the correct accreditations, but it’s important to double-check, especially if you’re considering a newer training facility.

Once training is complete, students should double-check their state’s training requirements. Most of them require a specific number of clinical hours. Usually, those hours will be available through the student’s training program, but regardless, it’s crucial to complete them before sitting for the CNA exam.

After that, potential CNAs need to submit a certification application and pay any application fees. They’ll also need to submit to fingerprinting and a background check. Typically states place a specific time limit for completing all of this, so potential CNAs need to do this directly after they complete training.

The exam itself consists of two parts: a written and a practical. The written exam in all states is a 90 question, multiple-choice exam. The practical is a one-on-one exam with a randomly assigned observer. It typically takes thirty minutes to complete.

Once potential CNAs pass the test, they become full-blown Certified Nursing Assistants. Each state has its own requirements for maintaining CNA licensing from there. Some call for continuing education or a specific number of working hours per year to ensure your license doesn’t expire.

PCA Education and Training

Becoming a PCA is a bit easier than becoming a CNA, but again, the requirements vary by state. PCAs need a high school diploma and PCA training.

PCA training is typically offered as a non-credit class through a community college or as a trade school program. It’s sometimes required as a prerequisite for nursing or CNA programs, which can make the classes competitive to get into.

Though PCA programs vary in length, they almost always end with a clinical internship. Usually, the internship includes supervised contact with patients in a home healthcare setting.

After completing the internship and training program, potential PCAs must show a current immunization record, CPR certification, and liability insurance. They also need to pass a tuberculosis test, drug screening, and background check.

After a potential PCA completes all of that, they should double-check their state’s requirements. Some states may require an additional physical exam or a specific number of internship hours.

After that, they can sit for the Home Care Aide certification exam, given by the National Association for Homecare and Hospice. This isn’t technically a state licensing exam, but most states and employers require it to work.

Frequently Asked Questions

At this point, the differences between becoming a PCA and CNA are probably pretty clear. But, you may still have a few questions about the two careers. Let’s see if we can answer them.

Who Gets Paid More, CNAs or PCAs?

Though there can be overlap, CNAs typically make more than PCAs. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median pay for CNAs is $30,850. For PCAs, it’s $27,080.

Is A PCA or CNA Considered a Nurse?

No, neither a PCA nor a CNA is a licensed, registered nurse (RN). However, both may assist nurses in medical settings.

Can You Become a PCA or CNA Online?

Both PCA and CNA training courses are available online. However, CNAs require clinical hours before sitting for the certification exam, and those need to be done in person. PCAs typically go through an in-person internship as well.

Can a PCA or CNA draw blood?

Each state has different regulations on drawing blood. Some states allow CNAs to draw blood, but most won’t allow either PCAs or CNAs to do so unless they have phlebotomy training.

CNAs and PCAs may choose to gain a phlebotomy technician certification for this reason. Typically phlebotomy training takes an additional year of school.

Understanding the Difference Between CNAs and PCAs

The difference between being a CNA vs. a PCA can seem subtle because both professions deal with direct patient care.

However, CNAs have more technical skills and must fulfill more stringent licensing requirements. They’re more likely to work alongside doctors and nurses in hospitals, where they may do more than directly care for a patient’s hygiene and nutrition.

Rather, CNAs may assist with setting up medical equipment and may help with basic medical procedures.

PCAs tend to work in home health settings. Though they may monitor vitals for doctors and nurses, they don’t participate in medical procedures. Instead, their concern is patient care and comfort.

As a result, they tend to help with daily errands, feeding, grooming, and patient hygiene more than a CNA would.

Despite their differences, though, there’s one thing these careers share; a love for patient care.

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Matt Lane

Matt graduated with a BSEd in Kinesiology from University of Georgia and is now pursuing a medical degree. He enjoys sharing his experience with other ambitious young people.