Do I Need a Degree to Become a CNA?

Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant is a pathway to a nursing career. It offers an opportunity for individuals interested in nursing to often work in the field before deciding to return to school to become a practical or registered nurse. Many nursing students find taking a CNA course prepares them for a nursing education program.

In many health care settings, CNAs are the backbone of patient care. Under the supervision of a licensed nurse, the CNA’s job includes monitoring patients, responding to requests within the limits of their responsibilities and communicating patients’ needs to a supervising nurse. Patients typically see their CNAs more often than other health care providers in hospitals and nursing homes.

Does an Individual Need a Degree To Become a CNA?

An individual thinking of becoming a CNA might ask, “Do I need a degree to become a CNA?” The answer is that a CNA candidate doesn’t need a college degree but must earn the CNA certification. Training programs usually require aspiring CNAs to have a high school diploma or GED. Based on these educational requirements, anyone may be able to enroll in training to become a CNA. However, caring for vulnerable people can be challenging. Therefore, those thinking of earning CNA certification should examine the role and see if they have the qualities needed to be compassionate and diligent caregivers.

The Role of the CNA

CNAs help nurses provide a safe and nurturing patient care environment. Typically, a registered nurse, licensed practical/vocational nurse or registered nurse supervises CNAs and decides which duties they’ll perform. CNAs don’t supervise their peers.

A CNA helps patients with personal hygiene, feeding, ambulation, bathing and toileting. Keeping patients comfortable, transporting them to other areas of a facility for therapy or treatment and checking vital signs are other duties CNAs often perform.

There are orders a CNA can’t carry out because they’re not qualified. A CNA should always have a written job description that lists the responsibilities supervisors may ask a nursing assistant to perform. The work that facilities require CNAs to perform can vary, so a potential CNA must review a job description carefully.

When a CNA accepts a job, the supervisor will expect them to accomplish the duties outlined in the job description. Inexperience can lead to harming a patient. If there are duties a CNA finds they aren’t qualified to conduct, they should tell the potential employer or not accept the position.

There may be situations where a supervisor asks a nursing assistant to perform a task outside of their scope of work and skills. Putting a CNA in such a position is dangerous and unprofessional.

A nursing assistant should never provide any care to a patient that goes beyond the legal limits of the job. For example, a nursing assistant is not qualified to start an IV.

Qualities of a CNA

An individual who aspires to become a CNA should be a team player and have compassion and respect for others. Dependability and reliability are necessary to be successful in the role.

Patients, coworkers and other medical professionals in nursing care facilities and different settings depend on CNAs to perform their assigned tasks. Being on time is essential because continuity of care is paramount in inpatient and residential health care settings.

Compassion is a quality that helps a CNA provide considerate and gentle care. Patients or residents often suffer physical and emotional pain due to illness. The CNA must have the capacity to show kindness to individuals who experience difficulties because of chronic and debilitating health issues.

Empathy means seeing things from another person’s point of view. CNAs must be able to put themselves in the patient’s situation, imagining what it’s like to be in the vulnerable position of depending on others.

A CNA must be professional and consistently demonstrate respect for patients, coworkers and families. Complaining about the workload and a lack of help from coworkers can be unsettling for patients or residents and their family members.

Addressing individuals by the names and titles they prefer, explaining procedures to patients before performing them, wearing clean and appropriate clothing and taking pride in a job well done are all hallmarks of professionalism.

Honesty is imperative for the individual working as a CNA. While CNAs work under the supervision of nurses, they often work alone when caring for patients.

CNAs must perform their duties according to the facility protocols and document information accurately. They must report any errors that could impact a patient’s well-being.

Stamina is necessary to work as a CNA, which requires walking and standing during the workday. Helping patients from the bed to a wheelchair, making beds and helping transport patients takes physical strength.

CNAs sometimes work long shifts where they’re on their feet for several hours. To provide excellent care, CNAs must eat well and take care of their physical health.

Occupational Outlook for CNAs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for Certified Nursing Assistants is good. The agency indicates about 192,800 openings for nursing assistants each year, so jobs tend to be plentiful in most areas.

The annual salary is around $30,290 per year, but pay depends on the nursing assistant’s geographical region. Nursing assistants in large urban centers can start at a salary of more than $40,000 per year with generous sign-on bonuses. ‘

To stay competitive, many health care organizations offer insurance benefits, paid leave, free meals and other benefits to attract good talent.

CNA Skills

Before you look for a program that will help you earn the Certified Nursing Assistant credential, it helps to become familiar with the vital skills every CNA must master to perform successfully.

Being a CNA is a responsibility the employee should take seriously. Patients trust their CNAs to be competent, caring and interested in their work.

Executing clinical tasks compassionately and professionally demonstrates good patient care and provides the information doctors and nurses need to respond immediately to problems and treatment planning. Anyone planning to pursue CNA training should demonstrate the following qualities and skills.

Good Personal Hygiene

Good personal hygiene should be at the top of any health care provider’s skill list.  Bathing before coming to work and wearing clean clothes is an expectation in any work setting.

Health care workers should have clean, well-maintained hair and trimmed nails that won’t tear gloves or injure patients’ skin.

Good Sanitation Practices

One of the most important personal hygiene practices is washing hands after caring for one patient and before caring for the next patient.

A CNA training program teaches candidates proper handwashing skills and other ways to protect patients from infections, such as the correct way to don gloves and wear masks.

Nursing assistants must practice good hygiene to protect patients and protect themselves from contagious diseases.

Communication Skills

Nursing assistants must have good listening skills and demonstrate good oral and written communication. They must also respond appropriately to patients’ concerns and inquiries. They need to share accurate information with other health care staff.

Nursing assistants must be current on medical terminology to understand their patients’ conditions and communicate effectively with other health care providers.

Willingness To Protect Patient Information

Nursing assistants must also know their limitations when it comes to information sharing. For example, it’s not the nursing assistant’s job to share diagnoses and sensitive information with patients and families.

When questions arise, they should refer patients and families to the supervising nurse or doctor. Nursing assistants must also protect patient information and be trained in HIPAA compliance to avoid personal information breaches that could land CNAs and their employers in legal trouble.

Ability To Provide Basic Life Support

Nursing assistants care for patients at high risk for cardiac arrest and breathing issues. CPR certification is essential to be able to help respond to these emergencies.

Knowledge of How To Bathe Patients

The nursing assistant needs to understand how to bathe a patient safely and preserve privacy.

Ability To Take Vital Signs

Taking blood pressure and pulse and observing respiration is part of a nursing assistant’s responsibilities. The nursing assistant must perform these tasks accurately and document findings in the patient’s chart.

Ability To Feed Patients Safely

Eating well helps patients stay healthy and can help them heal from infections or injuries. A nursing assistant must be knowledgeable about feeding patients safely to prevent choking and ensure that eating is a positive experience that benefits the individual’s health. The CNA also records the amount of food the patient consumes.

Skills To Record Input and Output

Measuring fluid intake and output ensures a patient maintains fluid balance. Too little urine output can mean an individual is retaining too much fluid, and too much output could indicate a risk of dehydration. Intake and output measurements are also indicators of bladder and kidney functioning.

Ability To Obtain Height and Weight

A CNA must be able to take and record accurate height and weight. For a bedridden patient, this means using a bed scale and measuring the patient’s height while in the supine position.

Ability To Chart in an Electronic Health Record

In many health care settings, nursing assistants must enter information into an electronic health record via computer.

Ability To Work in Multidisciplinary Teams

Multidisciplinary teams include members from different health disciplines. In addition to nursing staff, the nursing assistant may interact with doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists and others to ensure continuity of care.

Observing Patients for Changes

Sudden or gradual changes in a patient’s physical or mental status could be a sign of infection, medication side effects or other problems. The nursing assistant must be observant and report changes to the supervising nurse ASAP.

Ability To Administer Foley Catheter Care

Sometimes nursing assistants will care for patients with Foley Catheters. CNAs must use sanitary and discreet practices during catheter care to reduce the risk of infection and preserve the patient’s dignity.

Ability To Perform Range of Motion Exercises With Patients

When patients are recovering from injuries or surgeries, nursing assistants may assist with range of motion exercises, so they need to know proper body mechanics.

Knowledge of How To Provide Skin Care

Bedridden patients are at high risk for bed sores and other skin issues. CNAs must be knowledgeable about practices that keep the skin healthy.

CNA Training Programs

A CNA student needs a training program to help them excel and achieve a passing score on the CNA certification exam. However, learning information just to pass a CNA certification exam is not the only goal. It’s essential to find a nursing assistant training program with a reputation for teaching nursing assistants to provide excellent patient care. 

CNA programs vary depending on the state. Community colleges and vocational schools provide state-approved training programs for CNA certification in many areas.

Federal Government regulations regarding CNA training require that anyone who’ll work as a CNA in U.S. health care facilities demonstrates consistent knowledge and basic nursing care skills.

The options for CNA training continue to grow. An aspiring nursing assistant can find state-approved training programs at a local community college, secondary school or medical facility.

Many individuals find online CNA training the best fit. Some professional nursing students earn CNA credentials while studying to be an RN.

Obtaining Certification

Students must demonstrate hands-on skills during nursing assistant training by passing a manual skills test. After completing an approved training program, to become a certified nursing assistant or a licensed nursing assistant (titles vary by state), the graduate must pass a written exam. Passing the competency exam demonstrates mastery of CNA skills.

CNA as a Career

While CNAs often return to school to become registered nurses, licensed practical nurses or licensed vocational nurses, it’s common for career nursing assistants to work in the role until retirement.

Some CNAs begin their careers at long-term care facilities where job openings are plentiful but then move on to hospitals, medical practices, public health centers or other clinical practices specializing in taking care of patients with specific needs like hospice care.

Like other health care professionals, the CNA should engage in continuing education. CNAs’ continuing education opportunities include online CNA classes, workshops, on-the-job training and clinical skills practice.

A recent CNA graduate might be a CNA I in some employment settings. As CNAs gain experience and advanced training, they may become a CNA II, which allows them to engage in advanced CNA duties and earn higher pay.

The CNA II is still under the supervision of a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse where appropriate.

A Rewarding Career

For the individual with the maturity and patience required to take care of individuals with physical and mental conditions, getting a nursing assistant certification can offer a stable career with good benefits and a pathway to advancement.

Whether the employee is content with remaining in a nursing assistant role or aspires to become a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse, becoming a CNA is a place to begin.

Prepare To Get Your CNA

Join those who’ve found fulfillment in CNA work. Complete your high school diploma or GED and check out online CNA classes, community colleges and other certified nursing assistant training programs. Apply, enroll and be prepared to achieve your goal.

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