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What does a Nursing Assistant do?

A nursing assistant, or nursing aide, helps sick or impaired people with the activities of daily living. Nursing assistants help bathe, dress and feed people who are unable to do so independently. They also measure patients’ vital signs and provide basic nursing care under the supervision of a nurse.

In some states, specially trained nursing assistants may also administer medication. Nursing assistants work closely with nurses and are an important part of the healthcare team.

Where nursing assistants work

Most nursing assistants take care of elderly clients, but some care for children or physically or developmentally disabled adults. Nursing assistants work in nursing homes, assisted care centers, hospitals, hospices and patients’ homes. While most nursing assistants provide care to groups of patients in nursing homes and hospitals, some nursing assistants are employed by homecare agencies and provide one-on-one care to patients in the patients’ homes.

nursing assistant

Job skills for nursing assistants

Nursing assistants complete a brief training course that includes both classroom lessons and clinical experiences. While some high schools offer training courses, most nursing assistants obtain their training at a community or vocational college. Some healthcare facilities offer nursing assistant classes as well. Students in a facility-sponsored course may be paid for training and may be guaranteed employment upon successful completion of the course.

The federal government requires nursing assistants who work in state-certified centers to complete 75 hours of training and pass a state certification test. Nursing assistants who pass the test are known as certified nursing assistants (CNAs). Contact your state board of nursing for more information. To be eligible for employment, nursing assistants must be listed on their State Nurse Aide Registry. In some states, nursing assistants can take a medication administration course and become certified as a medication nursing assistant (MNA).

Nursing assistant is a physically demanding job. CNAs are on their feet all day; they also help lift, move and reposition patients. The job is emotionally demanding as well. Nursing assistants often work with sick, dying or confused patients.

Nursing assistants in demand

Demand for nursing assistants is high. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand for nursing assistants to increase by 18 percent. Part of the demand is fueled by high turnover in the field; the rest is fueled by a rapidly aging population that requires care.

Wages tend to be higher at home care agencies and hospitals. Wages are also higher on the East and West coast.

Nursing assistants have limited opportunity for advancement without returning to school. Working in this profession, though, provides an excellent foundation for a career in nursing. Many nursing assistants eventually become licensed practical nurses (LPN) or registered nurses (RN).

What does a Registered Nurse do?

A registered nurse (“RN”) helps people deal with physical or mental illnesses. RNsĀ also help individuals and populations strive for health.

Registered nurses administer medications, dress wounds, assess and monitor body functions, teach patients, families and communities, provide emotional and spiritual support, and plan interventions to help people achieve health.

Registered nurses work closely with other healthcare providers, including physicians, physical therapists, dieticians, licensed practical nurses, nursing assistants, lab technicians, social workers and discharge planners.

registered nurse

Education and Training

Currently, there are three paths to becoming a Registered Nurse:

  • An Associate Degree program, typically offered at a community or technical college, is a two-year program that includes classroom instruction in basic and applied health sciences, as well nursing theory and practice. Clinical rotations give students an opportunity to practice their developing skills. Graduates receive an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN, the national licensure test.
  • Diploma programs were more common prior to the 1970s. Three-year programs that emphasized clinical skill development, diploma programs were typically offered by hospitals. Presently, there are less than 100 diploma schools of nursing in existence. Diploma grads are also eligible to take the NCLEX-RN.
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs are four year programs offered by colleges and universities. Typically, the first two years are spent meeting the general ed requirements for graduation. The last two years are spent studying nursing theory and practice and in clinical rotations. BSN grads also sit for the NCLEX-RN.

In 2008, the American Nurses Association passed a resolution to support initiatives that will require all RNs to obtain a BSN within 10 years of licensure (excluding nurses who are already licensed).

All Registered Nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN and register with their state boards of nursing before becoming eligible for employment.

Where Nurses Work

Most RNs (approximately 60%) work in hospitals. Others work in long-term care facilities, schools, clinics, birth centers, home care agencies and private practice.

Registered nurses can choose from a wide variety of roles. Some RNs prefer hands-on nursing and care for ill and surgical patients in hospitals. Some RNs prefer the thrill of emergency medicine and work as flight nurses or ER nurses. Some enjoy patient teaching and work as diabetes educators, childbirth educators or in cardiac rehab. Others move into management or staff education positions.

RNs in Demand

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for RNs is predicted to increase by 22 percent. Most growth will be out of the hospital; future nurses will be more likely to work for clinics and home care agencies. Salaries vary.

What does a Vocational Nurse do?

A vocational nurse, sometimes called a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN), works with registered nurses to provide physical, emotional and spiritual care to patients. LVNs and LPNs receive the same training and pass the same licensure test; the only difference is the title.

In California and Texas, vocational nurses are called LVNs. In the other 48 states, nurses with similar training are called practical nurses or LPNs.

On the Job

A vocational nurse provides care under the direction of a registered nurse or physician. They administer medications, provide wound care, monitor body systems, keep patients comfortable, assist with activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, and feeding) and educate patients and families.

In some states, vocational nurses can start IVs. They often provide care for a group of patients and work closely with other vocational nurses, registered nurses and nursing assistants.

vocational nurse

Where Vocational Nurses Work

Vocational nurses work in a variety of settings. Most–28 percent–work in residential care facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted living settings. A vocational nurse can also work in medical clinics, hospitals, mental health facilities and patients’ homes. Some vocational nurses work in dental offices or optometrist offices.


Vocational nurses attend a one-year training course that’s typically offered at a community or vocational college. The course includes classroom work in the basic health sciences and nursing care. Clinical rotations are incorporated to give students real-life, hands-on experience with nursing skills such as administering medication, monitoring vital signs and juggling the care of two or more patients.

After graduation, students must pass the National Council Licensure Examination- Practical Nurse (NCLEX – PN) to become licensed. Vocational nurses must also meet the requirements of their state board of nursing to become eligible for employment.


Demand for vocational nurses is expected to grow by 21 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demand varies by geographic area and employment setting. Demand is particularly strong in the South and West; Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas employ many vocational nurses.

Nursing care facilities, clinics and home care agencies are expected to hire most vocational nurses in the future as care moves out of hospitals and the population ages. Wages are typically highest for vocational nurses who work with employment agencies or in nursing care facilities.