CNAs, Orderlies, Medical Assistants, Psychiatric Aides: What Are the Differences?

Certified Nursing Assistant(CNAs), orderlies, psychiatric aides, and medical assistants are often lumped into one large category, and though the positions share some duties, there are key differences. The following are brief descriptions of each, to help you understand those differences and decide which fits you best.

  • Orderlies: An orderly is a hospital attendant charged with non-medical patient care and general maintenance of systematic operations. Orderlies do not need a degree or certificate, and their interactions with patients are limited to non-treatment activities.
  • Psychiatric Aides: This position is similar to a CNA, except for the work environment. Mental health wards and psychiatric hospitals have different routines than regular hospitals, and psychiatric aides have to be familiar with the unique privacy concerns and treatment needs of mental health patients.
  • Medical Assistants: A medical assistant does not need a degree or certificate, and their main responsibilities are to help doctors and nurses with routine tasks. Medical assistants have less authority to participate in patient treatment than CNAs.
  • Certified Nurse Assistants/Aides: CNAs can take vital signs and gather other patient data as well as administering basic care and tending to the hygiene needs of patients. Because of their state approved training and certification, CNAs have more authority and often earn more than medical assistants, though many of their duties are similar.

Nursing assistant and medical assistant are often used interchangeably, as these roles share many of the same responsibilities, especially at hospitals and medical centers. What differentiates the two often comes down to location. Each state has its own criteria for becoming certified or licensed as a nursing aide. Each state also has its own regulatory board for licensing CNAs, so it’s important to learn your particular state’s requirements for nursing licensure.

The job of an orderly is very similar to the job of a CNA. Orderlies primarily work in hospitals, transferring patients from the bed to the restroom or from their room to a medical testing site. CNAs primarily work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, taking patients’ vital signs and communicating with doctors or nurses who make rounds less frequently.