Navigating the CNA career path: A comprehensive guide

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The certified nursing assistant (CNA) role is one of the most approachable in healthcare. Training is short and economical, with a low barrier to entry. As it is focused on providing essential patient care, the role also prepares professionals with foundational skills that can prime them for more advanced medical positions. The CNA career path looks different for everyone, but if you’re looking to progress your career while continuing to work, you can use the ShiftKey app to get the flexibility you need.

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Understanding the basics of a CNA career path

CNA roles and responsibilities

CNAs are responsible for everything related to basic medical care. They assist patients with everyday activities — such as bathing, dressing, feeding and mobility — monitor vital signs and maintain a clean environment. As they have the most contact with patients, they are often the first to notice condition changes and may create deep bonds with those they serve.

CNA work is in high demand, available at virtually any time of the day or night, making it perfect for gaining the schedule flexibility needed to advance your healthcare career. With the ShiftKey app, that flexibility is increased, since you have the freedom to work when and where you choose.

CNA educational requirements

The first step on a CNA career path (after earning a high school diploma or GED) is to complete a state-approved training program. CNA programs and certification requirements vary by state, but they’re typically a combination of classroom and clinical learning that can be completed in four to six weeks. This blog by the CNA Association (NAHCA) lists state requirements, but be sure to confirm those with your state’s health department.

The American Healthcare Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) offers a hybrid training course. After coursework, aspiring CNAs must pass a competency exam to gain certification.

Advancing your CNA career

From CNA to LPN or RN

Many CNAs decide to become either a licensed practical nurse (LPN for most of the country; LVN for licensed vocational nurses in California and Texas) or a registered nurse (RN). While both roles come with added responsibilities and a broader scope of practice, an LPN has fewer responsibilities than an RN.

LPN responsibilities include:

  • Running diagnostic tests
  • Maintaining charts
  • Observing patients
  • Recording vital signs
  • Assisting RNs and physicians as needed

RN responsibilities include:

  • Running and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Assessing patients
  • Maintaining and documenting medical records
  • Counseling patients about medical issues
  • Assisting physicians and carrying out their orders

How to become an LPN

First, you’ll need to complete an accredited practical nursing program. Next, you'll have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). Then, you’ll need to get licensed in your state and complete other state-specific requirements.

How to become an RN

If you want to become an RN, you’ll need to earn either an associate degree in nursing (ADN), which generally takes two years, or a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), which usually takes four years. Before being granted a license to practice, you’ll need to pass the NCLEX exam.

Specialized certifications

Instead of becoming an LPN or RN, you may choose to advance your CNA career path by gaining additional certifications or specializations. Here are some roles you might want to explore (specific requirements vary from state to state):

Medication Aide: As a medication aide, you can administer medication under nurse or physician supervision. Education is generally a mixture of classroom and clinical hours, and medication aides work in a variety of settings.

Certified Medical Assistant (CMA): CMAs may take medical histories, prepare patients for exams, draw blood, administer medications and assist physicians or nurses during exams. CMAs may also handle administrative tasks like scheduling appointments, managing patient records, billing and insurance processing.

Restorative Aide (RA): RAs work with physical and occupational therapists to assist patients with therapeutic exercises and activities. They play an essential role in helping patients regain mobility and independence.

Geriatric Nursing Assistant (GNA): GNAs specialize in caring for elderly patients and the unique needs and challenges associated with aging. They can work in skilled nursing facilities, assisted living communities and home health.

Pediatric Certified Nursing Assistant (PCNA): PNCAs provide care to younger patients and tend to work in clinics, children's hospitals or pediatric offices.

Home Health Aide (HHA): While many of their responsibilities overlap with a CNA’s, HHAs are trained to provide care in a patient's home.

Dialysis Patient Care Technician: These technicians work in dialysis centers or hospital dialysis units, assisting patients undergoing treatment.

Certified Hospice and Palliative Nursing Assistant (CHPNA): Specializing in end-of-life care, CHPNAs support patients and their families during the final stages of life.

EKG Technician: EKG technicians specialize in performing electrocardiograms, which monitor the electrical activity of the heart.

Phlebotomy Technician: Phlebotomy technicians specialize in drawing blood for diagnostic testing.

Patient Care Technician (PCT): PCTs typically have more training than CNAs and can perform additional tasks such as basic laboratory tests, EKGs and blood draws.

Psychiatric Aide: Specializing in mental health care, psychiatric aides work in mental health facilities, supporting patients with mental illnesses or disabilities.

Learning while working

New healthcare techniques, technologies and best practices are emerging regularly, and staying on top of those can enhance your career prospects. Some positions may offer on-shift training or provide support for continuing education. But you can also take it upon yourself to gain specialized skills or further your education in other ways.

You may find more opportunities to learn while working when you pick up PRN shifts via the ShiftKey app, simply because you can choose to work in different locations, work with a diverse group of medical professionals, and even try different settings (if you have the required qualifications).

Career opportunities and settings

CNAs can work in various healthcare environments. As discussed previously, this includes emergency rooms, long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, home healthcare, hospices and even private practices. Each setting offers a unique experience, making it possible for each CNA to find a niche that resonates most with their personal and professional goals.

Financial benefits of career advancement

In addition to gaining new skills and having new experiences, when you advance in your career, you usually increase your income. Here is the national average annual pay for each of the roles we’ve covered in an employment context:

CNA: A profession filled with opportunities for growth

In healthcare, the CNA role is indispensable, and the paths branching out of it are varied and rewarding. As you navigate the CNA career path, remember that you have many options if you want to grow your skill set. Whether you pursue formal education or specialized certifications or want to focus on providing essential care as a CNA on your terms, you can use the ShiftKey app to gain the flexibility you need to achieve your goals.