How to Become a CNA
Certified nursing assistants, or “CNAs,” form the bedrock of medical care.
While they don’t make medical decisions or diagnose conditions, they are essential to the overall care and wellbeing of patients.
When an injured patient needs help with bathing, a nursing assistant fills that role. When someone needs help feeding themselves, nursing assistants are there. When a patient needs to be moved into a comfortable position, nursing assistants are the ones that provide comfort and care.
By providing the fundamental basics of care and daily living, certified nursing aids make stays at hospitals and nursing homes more relaxing, comfortable, and pleasant.
The role of a CNA not only provides better care for patients, it also provides a springboard to other careers in the medical field. This entry-level position can lead to many future opportunities and allows professionals to try the healthcare industry without a large commitment to educational time and money.
Understanding the Different Types of Nurses
Before you enter the medical, healthcare, and nursing industry, you need to be knowledgeable on the different types of jobs available. Choosing the right one will depend on what you want to do, how much education you want to go through, and how much responsibility you want to hold in your career.
Let’s take a look at some of the common types of nursing positions, starting with certified nursing assistant, since this is where many people start their own nursing careers.
Certified Nursing Assistant
A certified nursing assistant (CNA) helps patients with basic care and wellbeing tasks, performing many of the housekeeping or quality-of-life jobs that are required by patients. Essentially, a CNA is there to assist the nurses, so their duties can cover a wide range of tasks. This can include assistance with hygiene, changing clothes, taking vital signs, and assisting with exercises.
Certified nursing assistants are the ground-level foundation for a healthcare or nursing facility. Although they serve an important function, many people choose to use a CNA career as a stepping stone to other positions, including LPNs and RNs.
Licensed Practical Nurse
A licensed practical nurse, or LPN, is one of the positions that many people move into after working a few years as a CNA. While many CNAs essentially work as general caretakers, LPNs are more involved in the administration of healthcare services, such as taking blood pressure, reporting patient status, and giving medicine to patients.
They could also assist with specific tasks directly related to medical care, such as changing bandages, inserting catheters, or issuing IV medications. To become an LPN, you must complete an approved program, which usually takes about a year to complete. They must also complete a licensing exam administered by the state.
RNs or Registered Nurses are more educated and have more responsibilities in the treatment of patients. They plan patient care, assist with diagnosis, study recovery results, and deliver instructions to patients. They may also be responsible for overseeing and guiding other medical workers, such as CNAs and LPNs.
The educational path for RNs is a little longer than LPN programs. Depending on the specific program and previous education, it usually takes about two to four years to complete an RN education.
How to Become a CNA
Few careers in the medical profession offer the fast-track to a career that you’ll find with CNA education. While there is certainly a fair amount of coursework and study, if you have your high school or equivalent diploma, you can become a CNA in less than a year. This makes it one of the most attractive options for working in the medical field, and also makes the career a top option for learning about the medical industry and finding out if it’s right for you.
There are four steps to becoming a CNA:
- Earn your high school diploma or GED;
- Complete state-approved CNA training (available online or at hospitals, community colleges, or The Red Cross);
- Complete in-person clinical requirement;
- Pass the certification exam & get listed on your state's CNA registry.
Becoming a CNA is, at least compared to many other medical professions, fast and simple. But that doesn’t mean you can cruise through the work with little to no effort. Although the program is fast, the classes do require focus and commitment.
The only prerequisite for entering a CNA program is a high school diploma or equivalent. If you don’t have this diploma, you will need to go through the steps to complete your GED. However, if you graduated high school, you should meet the basic requirements for a CNA education.
The program and educational requirement for becoming a CNA will vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations in your area for complete details on becoming a certified nursing assistant. You can find programs that meet CNA educational requirements offered by many institutions and organizations. While a community college is often the setting for CNA courses, they are offered at high schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. You can also take online CNA classes, although you will need to complete a short period of in-person, on-the-job training.
Once you find a state-approved education program, you can enter into the classes and begin your education. Most CNA programs take about one to four months to complete, depending on the institution and how rapidly the classes are offered.
During your coursework, you will study topics like anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, and pharmacology. These classes will include mostly brief studies into each subject, which prepares you, in a short amount of time, to communicate and interact with nurses and doctors in the medical profession.
Before the program is over, students will have to complete on-site training, which is typically called “clinical studies” or “clinical work.” During this phase of your education, CNA students will work under the guidance of a medical professional, such as a registered nurse. This will give students direct experience in the types of jobs they will be completing, including vital signs, changing bedding, and providing patient comfort. Clinical work is not only required, it’s a valuable step for gaining direct experience in the medical setting.
Online CNA Classes
GetEducated offers a comprehensive online CNA program that allows you to study at home using your own time and space to complete your education. This in-depth curriculum helps you learn the important skills that are necessary for a long career as a certified nursing assistant.
One of the top benefits of this program is that there are no enrollment prerequisites. It features video-based courses that demonstrate the critical skills and knowledge necessary for CNA work. They feature experienced professionals in the medical field and provide targeted learning for anyone interested in CNA certification. It covers many of the basic topics that are found in typical CNA classes, including physiology and anatomy subjects.
Each video is accompanied by a summary exam, ensuring targeted, effective learning for enrolled students.
The videos are delivered in a clear, compact manner and feature an expert instructor who provides valuable information on the CNA career field. Not only can you take the classes at home, they are mobile-friendly, so you could study for your CNA while taking a morning bus, taxi, or subway.
The cost of this program is $1,290. You’ll need to make sure your devices and software meet certain requirements, but most systems will be able to support the courses. You will, of course, need high-speed broadband internet to access the videos and view them in a seamless manner.
Most states will require you to complete the in-person training after the online educational component. This can be completed at a local hospital or clinic. This course will fully prepare you for an extensive career as a CNA, and could be the foundation to further jobs in the medical field, including a career as an LPN or an RN.
In-Person CNA Training
There are also various in-person options for CNA education. One option is to complete the training program through the American Red Cross. This organization offers some of the best medical and nursing education and services in the country, and they are a good option to start your career.
Red Cross courses are often more affordable. A Red Cross CNA course costs a flat rate of only $1,300, which includes all nursing supplies but not the uniform. CNA programs usually cost at least $2,000, so this is an affordable rate for training.
Red Cross courses also boast one instructor for every ten students. While you could find a similar ratio in community colleges, you’ll often have more students per instructor. The Red Cross is a well-established and respected organization, so you can expect to receive a high-quality education if you enroll in their program, and much of the coursework is available online, making it a convenient option as well.
Many nursing homes and hospitals also offer their own CNA training programs. These programs allow you to gain experience in a medical setting from the very beginning. One of the main advantages to this type of CNA training is a virtual guarantee of employment. Although anyone with a CNA certification should have little problem getting a job, training through a facility allows you to move right into a position. In some cases, you may even be paid for your time training as a CNA.
Licensing & Certification
No matter what CNA education path you take, you’ll have to pass the required licensing exam to earn your CNA certification necessary to enter into the field. The competency exam covers the basic topics that were studied during the program.
The purpose of certification and licensing is to ensure a consistency of care across the medical field. It allows health care facilities to hire CNAs with confidence, knowing that the people they hire have passed the necessary steps to provide excellent care and medical support.
Details will change depending on the state, but in most cases the exam is a combination of both multiple-choice and manual skills testing. The multiple-choice section will include topics like infection control, medical ethics, safety, and data collection.
For the manual skills portion, you’ll be asked to perform specific skills required by a certified nursing assistant. These skills can include bathing a patient, or repositioning someone in bed. In most cases, both sections of the exam will be completed in the same day.
When the CNA certification exam is passed, individuals are placed into a state registry and will be officially eligible for work as a nursing assistant.
Becoming a CNA in Pennsylvania
So how do all these steps work? Let’s take a look at the state of Pennsylvania to understand the steps needed to become a CNA. Every state is different, but this will provide a good example.
First, you must be at least 16 years old and must be able to read, write, and understand the English language. You must also pass a physical exam and be free of communicable disease before enrolling in a Pennsylvania-approved course. Enrollment will also include a state-required background check.
Second, you must complete a state-approved nursing aide training program, which is at least 80 hours in length. This will also include 37.5 hours of clinical practice.
CNA certification testing in Pennsylvania will cost $102 for the first attempt. There is a $70 fee if you fail and need to retake the skills test and a $32 fee for the written exam.
The exam in Pennsylvania, like other states, consists of two parts: the written component and the practical skills test. Both will be given on the same day, but if you fail one and pass the other, you will only have to retest on the one you failed. Candidates are tested in five nursing skills and must demonstrate appropriate hygiene. The written test is multiple choice and is available in oral form.
The final scores will usually be given directly at the testing site. Candidates are allowed to retake the test three times before retraining is required.
If a Pennsylvania nursing aide does not work in the field for 24 months, their certification will expire. However, if you were previously trained and certified you can retake the test without retaking the training.
Continuing Education & Staying Informed
Like any career, staying informed on the latest practices and advancements is essential to the long-term success of a CNA. Although they are not heavily involved in the administration of medical treatment and take more of a supportive role, certified nursing assistants need to understand the current medical advancements, theories, and discoveries that guide the decisions of nurses and doctors.
In some states, continuing education is required to continue working as a CNA. This often comes in the form of recertification, although it may require taking classes throughout your career. Some CNAs opt to continue their education with a certificate or associate's degree.
#TRENDING: Advanced Nursing Assistant Certificate from Kentucky Community & Technical College System.
It is also possible to have credentials added to your CNA certifications. For example, some states offer a Certified Medication Assistant credential, which allows CNAs to give patients medication.
Becoming a CNA: Career Expectations
So what does it take to excel in the career of a certified nursing aid? What traits and characteristics will help you thrive in this rewarding yet challenging career? There are many characteristics that make a great nursing aid, but it really comes down to caring, cooperation, and patience.
Like any job in the medical field, a caring attitude is essential if you want to make it as a CNA. If you are the type of person who is always concerned with the physical comfort and emotional wellbeing of people around you, then you may have a strong foundation for the nursing profession.
Cooperation is also essential. As a CNA, you won’t have a lot of decision-making responsibilities, at least when it comes to treatments and diagnosis. You have to be able to take instruction and follow the guidance of nurses and doctors, and accept your role as a team player. To use a sports analogy, CNAs aren’t the star quarterback, they’re the offensive linemen, dutifully working in the trenches to accomplish a team goal. In this case, the team goal isn’t scoring a touchdown, but achieving better comfort and health for patients. Cooperation includes communication, taking instructions, and collaborating to achieve these goals.
Patience is also essential. You will often be the first and most-frequent person that a patient talks to. They may unload their frustrations or difficulties on you, and you have to be able to work with people patiently and not flinch when people are upset.
One added note: physical endurance and strength is also beneficial for nursing assistants. CNAs not only move all over the hospital floor, totaling many miles in a single day, they also have to lift patients and help move equipment. You won’t need to be Hulk Hogan, but a degree of general physical fitness will help your career.
Pros & Cons
Understanding the benefits, as well as the drawbacks, of a CNA career can help you decide if this is the right field for you. While everyone’s experience is different, here are a few pros and cons for working in this career.
One of the top benefits for this career field is accessibility. Because the training and certification process takes less than half a year to complete (in some cases only a month), you can complete the requirements for a CNA and launch your career quickly. It is also more affordable because there are fewer semester hours and classes to complete.
There is also a high demand for CNAs, so no matter where you live, landing a job is usually fast and easy.
CNAs also enjoy a versatile position that allows them to work directly with many patients. While nurses and doctors make the final decisions on healthcare, CNAs are often the ones that interact with patients the most. (Of course, this can be a two-sided coin.)
The first and most obvious drawback to being a CNA is the pay. We’ll dive into the specifics of pay later, but because CNA is an entry-level position, it doesn’t come with the higher pay of LPNs or RNs, and it certainly doesn’t have the six-figure incomes of doctors and surgeons.
You’ll also have to assist people with bodily functions, including trips to the bathroom. If this sounds unpleasant, the work of a CNA will wear you out quickly.
It can also be physically demanding, requiring you to be on your feet and moving all throughout the day. There is also an emotional demand, as you’ll eventually work with hospitalized patients who are near the end of their lives.
CNA Salary & Job Outlook
Because the educational requirements and time it takes to become certified are lower, CNAs are actually one of the lowest-paid employees in the medical profession. This isn’t to say they are poorly paid, they just make less than most nurses and doctors.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Nursing Assistants and Orderlies” make an average of $27,710 a year, with an average hourly wage of $12.36 per hour. The lowest 10% in the field make about $19,000 a year. However, the top CNAs actually make more than $36,000 a year, so there is potential for a high-quality income that compares to the national averages.
While the pay may not be substantial, the potential jobs are readily available. The BLS says that the demand for nursing assistants will grow by 18% from 2014 to 2024. (For perspective, the national job growth will be around 7%.) Healthcare support occupations are expected to grow by 23%. This is another positive sign, as many CNAs eventually move into other healthcare roles.
Most certified nursing aides will work in nursing care facilities. About 41% will be employed by these types of facilities, while 25% will work in hospitals. Other industries that employ CNAs include home health care and retirement or assisted living communities.
Enroll in an Online CNA Program Today!
The CNA career path is one that is ripe with job opportunities, and the shorter education requirements allow you to start earning a salary much faster than other healthcare positions. Online CNA courses make the education process even easier and are oftentimes cheaper than in-person options. As always, verify that your state will accept your online education before you enroll, and remember that every degree in the GetEducated directory is screened for proper accreditation!
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