Have you ever wondered what the difference between an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) is? Well, it’s not as straightforward as you might think, while they are both entry-level medical care jobs, there is quite a range of difference in training and responsibilities. One is not necessarily better than the other, but they do have different types of training and education.
EMTs and CNAs are both entry-level healthcare positions, but they are different and one is not necessarily higher/better than the other. EMTs are trained in basic pre-hospital emergency medicine, while CNAs are trained to assist with healthcare in a hospital or clinic setting.
Both EMTs and CNAs are important roles in our healthcare system. They receive different types of training and one of these roles may be better for you and your goals and aspirations. Let’s take a look.
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Table of Contents
EMT vs CNA: Which is Better?
An EMT or Emergency Medical Technician is a member of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS). They typically operate from an ambulance but may also work from other vehicles or as part of the fire service as required.
They are among the first responders to medical emergencies and will work to stabilize patients with life-threatening conditions so that they can be transported to a treatment center (typically a hospital) for further treatment (definitive care). They may also be required to treat more minor problems and to work with the public to better manage an incident scene.
A CNA, on the other hand, is a Certified Nursing Assistant. They are based within a clinical setting (usually a nursing home, clinic, or hospital) and their job is to act as an assistant to the nursing and doctoral staff with an emphasis on direct patient care.
So, for example, a CNA might be required to bathe a patient or feed them. They might need to track the patient’s vital signs and record them. They will always operate under the supervision of a higher-ranking member of the clinical team such as a nurse or a doctor.
Both CNAs and EMTs are required to be certified by their state and representative bodies in order to practice. They are both subject to background checks prior to being engaged in their roles as they both have access to and work with vulnerable people.
This video gives some more good info about the differences between working as a CNA vs an EMT:
EMT Training: What Does It Entail?
In order to be eligible to become an EMT, you do need some basic education.
In particular, you will be expected to show that you have a high school diploma or a GED. Some colleges may let you begin an EMT course without your high school diploma, but if you can’t produce it at the end of your course, you will need to sit the GED before you can get your EMT results.
The vast majority of EMT programs also expect you to have done some basic CPR training (though some do include it as part of the class). So, if you haven’t got this under your belt, already, and you want to be an EMT – you should do that first.
The good news is that both the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association (AHA) can provide CPR training near you and it’s super affordable (and occasionally, if you can access it through an existing employer or college – it’s completely free of charge!)
Once that’s done, you will need to find an accredited EMT program and that means it should be found on the database of Emergency Medical Services Authority. If it’s not on the list, it’s not an official EMT course. You can find an accreditated program here.
You will then complete about 100-180 hours of training for an EMT-basic certificate, which is a very practical course. This is the lowest form of EMT qualification and can take as little as 2 months to complete (though it’s usually closer to 4-6 months).
This video gives you a better idea of what to expect in EMT school:
However, you should be aware that there is also an EMT-P qualification which takes at least 1,090 hours more training. So, don’t think that being an EMT is always an easy route.
Assuming that you’ve completed the training successfully, you must then take the NREMT cognitive exam, which can be challenging, that will put you through your paces and ensure that your learning on your EMT course stuck with you.
You can take this test again if you don’t pass, but there are a maximum number of attempts too before you have to take your whole college course again.
For more info on this test, read: Is The EMT State Exam/Test (NREMT) Hard To Pass?
You will also need to pass your state’s psychomotor exam to demonstrate your practical abilities as an EMT. Once you’ve done that, assuming you’ve passed, you’re an EMT.
CNA Training: What Does It Entail?
CNAs go through quite a different training program and it’s a very formal and academic route that requires 4 to 12 weeks (at least 75 hours) spent in the classroom. This provides the kind of background knowledge that you need to understand what is involved with caring for patients.
You learn everything from the legal rights of patients to why recording protocols exist and what they mean for patient safety. Once you have passed through this training – you are then allowed to progress to the clinical practice element.
As it sounds, clinical practice is a more practical element to the training of a CNA and it’s time spent in a real fully functioning clinical setting. As CNAs typically work in nursing homes, this is often the setting in which they will gain experience. However, it’s worth noting that this isn’t mandatory, and a CNA may gain their experience in a hospital or clinic too.
That time is spent learning how to monitor vital signs, care for a patient’s personal hygiene, and how to help patients perform what are known as “range of motion” exercises.
This video shows some CNA students going through the training:
This clinical training element is spent under the supervision of qualified nursing instructors who will also tailor the learning in order to best prepare a CNA for their final examination. The student must pass a state-certified CNA examination in order to begin their practice.
This article has some more info about the CNA exam.
EMT vs CNA: Which Has A Higher Level Of Training?
If we’re comparing an EMT-basic against a CNA, then it ought to be very clear that a minimum of 100 hours of training for EMTs against a 75-hour minimum for CNAs means they can be a very similar level of training.
However, it is important to stress that the two professions are very different, and the skills learned on these courses do not have as much overlap as you might expect them to at first glance.
Though there are 6-9 month long CNA programs and EMT-Paramedics have 1000+ hours of training, so determining which job has a higher level of training can really vary.
We still don’t think that this is a particularly meaningful comparison, though. Time spent over books is not a measure of the level of training. For example, a CEO in a company might only spend a day in training every year compared to an engineer working for them who spends 2 weeks a year in training, but would you argue that the CEO had a lower level of training because of this? No and we wouldn’t either.
There are certain tasks and procedures that an EMT is trained for and a CNA is not, and the other way around. They are simply different professions that can’t be fully compared. Like comparing apples to oranges.
So, it is better to see this exercise as a side-by-side comparison of two career paths rather than a competition between the two. If you want to be a CNA because you think the job will suit you, that’s the best option and vice-versa if you think that being an EMT will suit you.
EMT VS CNA: Which has a higher level of training? You could argue this in either direction, to be fair. Both EMTs and CNAs are the first foot on the ladder in terms of providing medical care, but CNAs work within a hospital or clinical setting to deliver basic care to patients who are already undergoing treatment.
Whereas an EMT must provide care at the scene of an emergency and they may not have anyone around to supervise or guide their efforts. With such a difference between the two roles, it’s hard to say that one is better trained than the other.