PCA vs. CNA: What Are The Differences?

Many people have a tough time differentiating Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) from Patient Care Assistants (PCAs) since their job duties so closely resemble each other. After all, both CNAs and PCAs work under the supervision of licensed nurses to provide basic patient care. However, there are several key differences between these two vital roles in the healthcare industry.

Requirements to become a CNA vs. PCA

CNAs must complete a state-approved certification program before they can begin working. These programs typically last between four – twelve weeks and involve anywhere from 75 hours to 180 hours of classroom time and clinical experience. They must then pass the CNA exam and register with their state’s nurse aide registry program before they can practice as a CNA. The process is different for each state – refer to our page on how to become a CNA for more information.

Unlike CNAs, there no set federal requirements for becoming a PCAs. The title PCA is often used for any entry level medical assistant who works in a healthcare setting. Although some employers request EKG training as a pre-condition for employment, PCAs are often only required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. PCA classes are offered, often by the employer, and typically last less than two weeks and can often be taken online.

Job duties of a CNA vs. PCA

CNAs are generally responsible for more complex tasks than PCAs, such as taking vital signs and providing certain types of medical treatments. This is because they have completed a certified training program that has taught them how to perform these tasks. Other common CNA duties include:

  • Assisting patients with activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, and eating
  • Transferring patients in and out of bed
  • Taking patient medical histories and vital signs
  • Making beds
  • Answering patients’ calls
  • Documenting patient information

PCAs, on the other hand, generally stick to less complex tasks, such as:

  • Transporting patients
  • Serving meals
  • Answering call lights
  • Assisting with personal hygiene
  • Collecting trash and soiled linens
  • Organizing and stocking patients’ rooms
  • Providing emotional support to patients and their families

In some circumstances, PCAs or Patient Care Technicians (PCTs) have additional certifications or experience outside the scope of what a CNA would do, such as phlebotomy (being able to draw blood) or being able to read a Electrocardiogram (EKG/ECG).

Both CNAs and PCAs will complete their job duties under the supervision of a Registered Nurse. They may also report directly to a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or a Nursing Assistant (NA), who is often referred to as a PCA director, manager, or supervisor.

PCA and CNA differences by state

A PCA or CNA may have a different name or meaning based on where you live. For example, in Washington state, PCAs are referred to as PC technicians, and in Louisiana they may be called a PCT (patient care technician). CNAs are called STNAs (State Tested Nurse Aides) in Ohio, and “nurse aides” in many states. PCAs are often called home health aides, family care attendants, and homemakers’ assistants based on their location or specific roles and responsibilities. PCAs in some states may be able to perform higher levels of healthcare services than PCAs in other states, particular states like California that offer state-accredited PCA classes.

While the roles of CNAs are more defined, the roles of a PCA can vary greatly depending on the state in which they work, as well as the specific employer. It’s important to research the requirements and duties of PCAs in your state before beginning any education program.

It’s important to remember that the title “PCA” is not always interchangeable with “CNA.” In some states, the title PCA may refer to a position that is more closely related to that of a home health aide, while in others it may be used as an umbrella term for all entry-level medical positions, including CNAs. The best way to determine the duties and responsibilities of a PCA in your state is to research the position with your state’s board of nursing or department of health.

The bottom line

Both CNAs and PCAs play an important role in providing quality patient care. However, their duties and responsibilities are quite different. CNAs must complete a certified training program and pass a state-administered exam, while PCAs are not required to do either of these things. CNAs are also responsible for more complex tasks than PCAs, such as taking vital signs and providing certain types of medical treatments.