What is the Difference Between Medical Assisting and Practical Nursing?

Are you ready to start working in the healthcare sector? The good news is that both medical assistants and practical nurses help their community and support patients in better managing their health. There are a few differences between them. This article will explain what you would do as a medical assistant or practical nurse so you can make this important decision about your future.


What Does a Medical Assistant Do?


Medical assistants perform clinical and clerical tasks, serving patients for better health outcomes, including: 


Patient Intake and History


Medical assistants greet patients in the waiting room and walk them back to the exam room. In the exam room, they prepare patients for their appointments, take vital signs, update medical history, and document relevant information in their health records. 


Assisting Physician with Exam 


Medical assistants help physicians during medical exams by preparing the necessary medical supplies, assisting with patient positioning, and monitoring the patient’s comfort and safety.


Performing Minor Treatments


A medical assistant’s treatment responsibilities vary based on their medical environment. They may remove stitches, apply bandages, and assist physicians with complex procedures. 


Taking Vital Signs 


Medical assistants use medical equipment and clinical expertise to measure a patient’s vital signs at each visit. Body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate trends can indicate a need for further testing.


Performing Diagnostic Tests 


Medical assistants perform diagnostic tests, including EKGs, pacemaker evaluations, urine pregnancy screens, occult fecal blood testing, and urinalysis.


Collecting Laboratory Specimens


Medical assistants collect biological samples such as blood and urine for laboratory testing. They learn phlebotomy during the Medical Assistant program at Gwinnett College. 


Managing Electronic Medical Records


Medical assistants continually update information, ensuring that the timeliest data is available to both patients and physicians. 


Scheduling Appointments


Medical assistants support the front office and help manage appointment scheduling. They will triage phone calls, prioritize symptoms, and arrange the appropriate care. 


Triaging Phone Calls 


Medical assistants take clinical calls, screen patients for severe symptoms, and flag priority issues before directing inquiries to medical professionals. As the doctor’s representative, they help the administrative team manage urgent care appointments between well-care visits.


Infection Control


Medical assistants prevent the spread of disease by sanitizing exam rooms, disinfecting equipment, and sterilizing surgical instruments. 


Emergency Response


Trained in CPR and first aid, a medical assistant’s quick thinking and medical expertise can make a life-or-death difference in critical situations.


Medical Coding 


When filling out insurance reimbursement forms, alphanumeric medical codes describe symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments. Using the superbill created at check-in, medical assistants note the services rendered and the medical supplies used during each visit so medical facilities can be reimbursed for time and resources.


Managing Inventory 


Medical assistants are responsible for stocking the shelves with medical and office supplies and reordering when inventory gets low.


Patient Education


Medical assistants educate patients about post-surgical care, managing health conditions, medication symptoms, and treatment plans. They provide information on preventive measures, lifestyle modifications, and disease management, allowing patients to participate actively in their healthcare. 


What Does a Practical Nurse Do?


Practical nurses are entry-level healthcare professionals who provide primary nursing care under the strict supervision of a doctor or a registered nurse. Their responsibilities include:


Personal Care


Practical nurses help patients with activities of daily living, eating, bathing, dressing, and using the toilet safely.


Patient Monitoring


Practical nurses observe patients for changes in condition, reporting any abnormal findings to an RN or physician for follow-up. For example, a patient with a higher-than-normal temperature may have an infection that needs assistance.


Pain Management


Practical nurses assess patients for pain considerations, administer medications, and employ non-pharmacological interventions.


Vital Signs


Practical nurses manage vital signs in hospitals and nursing homes. They periodically take a patient’s temperature, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, heart rate, and blood pressure. Results are added to the electronic health records for medical professionals to access during diagnosis and treatment decisions.


First Aid and CPR


In an emergency, practical nurses are trained in first aid and CPR to help patients, while physicians or registered nurses are en route to manage patient emergencies. Both first aid and CPR are included in the Practical Nursing program curriculum offered at Gwinnett College.


Wound Care and Treatments


Practical nurses perform complex wound care and various treatments under physician orders. They perform urinary catheterization, test blood glucose, implement tube feeding and nasogastric tube care, manage ventilators, check pacemakers, administer oxygen, perform enemas, change bandages, and remove sutures.


Recording Patient Information


Documentation is an essential legal and professional responsibility for nurses. Practical nurses write notes to convey their observations about a patient’s condition, ensuring continuity of care.


Supervising Paraprofessional Staff


Practical nurses supervise paraprofessional team members, such as nursing assistants and dietary aides, keeping everyone managing patient care to a common goal.


What is the Difference Between Medical Assisting and Practical Nursing?


There are a few differences between medical assistants and practical nurses. These differences include:


Clinical and Clerical Responsibilities


While medical assistants perform clinical and clerical duties, the practical nurse exclusively focuses on clinical responsibilities. Medical assistants support the front and back offices, allowing nurses and physicians the time needed for direct patient care.


Medical Responsibilities


Although medical assistants and practical nurses report to registered nurses and physicians, practical nurses take on more responsibility when managing patients. They can administer medication, perform minor surgical procedures, and make care decisions with the support of a supervisor. On the other hand, medical assistants are responsible for less invasive medical procedures like taking vital signs, reporting patient histories, and educating patients on post-exam care.


Work Environment


Most medical assistants are employed by doctor’s offices and work during regular business hours. Although they may see an emergency, most patients visit doctor’s offices for less urgent reasons. The practical nurse, on the other hand, typically works in hospitals. Since hospitals are open 24/7, practical nurses work different shifts and may manage more emergencies.


Patient Rapport


Since most medical assistants work in doctor’s offices, they tend to see patients regularly and see their progression over time. They may even build rapport with patients. Practical nurses who work in hospitals will see the same patients less but likely manage more unique cases, seeing injuries and disorders that a medical assistant may not.


Medical Assistant Program


Gwinnett Colleges & Institute offers medical assisting courses to help students gain essential skills and training at multiple campuses, from Lilburn, Roswell/Sandy Springs, and Atlanta/Marietta to Orlando, FL, and Raleigh, NC. The core curriculum at these campuses focuses on the medical assisting skills and training you will need to seek entry-level employment.


Practical Nurse Program


Are you looking for practical nursing training classes in Central Florida to prepare you to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN)? Gwinnett Institute in Orlando offers a Practical Nursing diploma program that trains LPN students for positions delivering basic bedside care to patients. The Practical Nursing diploma program provides the didactic and skills training needed to take the NCLEX-PN examination.* 


*While Gwinnett Institute provides test preparation and review assistance to college students, it cannot guarantee any college student will be able to take or pass any type of licensure exam. College students must be mindful throughout their entire training program that licensure is a prerequisite for employment as a nurse and to diligently prepare themselves to meet this important requirement.


Contact Gwinnett Colleges & Institute today to learn more about becoming a medical assistant or practical nurse.