In healthcare, the term “assistant” can mean different things depending on the context. This can sometimes lead to confusion, particularly among those who are unfamiliar of the certifications, licensure, and dedication necessary to become any of the types of ‘assistants’ in the healthcare world. Read below to explore the different types of assistants in healthcare settings, and how they differ from other non-healthcare assistants.
A medical assistant is a healthcare professional who works under the supervision of a licensed healthcare provider. They are tasked with a variety of clinical and administrative duties, such as taking vitals, administering medications, and preparing patients for procedures.
These professionals can only begin work as an MA after completing a secondary education for medical assistants. Afterwards, they can move on to obtain their certification as a medical assistant to become a CMA. Medical assistants can be found in a variety of healthcare settings, including medical offices, hospitals, and clinics.
A physician assistant, also known as a PA, is a highly trained healthcare professional who works under the supervision of a licensed physician. Only after obtaining a bachelor’s degree and completing an accredited PA program can qualified individuals test to become certified PAs through the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam (PANCE)
This position was originally created in the mid-1960s to introduce highly qualified medical professionals to the field slightly faster than a physician could be trained. While they still had to report to a physician, they are capable practitioners and are trusted with the care of patients with minimal oversight. PAs are authorized to perform a wide range of medical procedures, including diagnosing illnesses, ordering and interpreting tests, and prescribing medications. They work in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, and private practices.
Certified Nursing Assistant
A certified nursing assistant, or CNA, is a healthcare professional who provides basic care to patients under the supervision of a licensed nurse. They must first obtain a high school level diploma/GED and then complete a nursing assistant program before they are able to test to obtain their certification. Their duties include bathing, feeding, dressing, and grooming patients. They are also responsible for taking vital signs and reporting any changes in a patient’s condition to the nursing staff.
Laboratory assistants are healthcare professionals that are often confused with Laboratory Technologists and Technicians. While their skills do heavily overlap, the core difference is that lab techs are certified as such, having completed exams such as the Medical Lab Technologist certification exam. Without the certification, there is a limit to what they are able to do without supervision, but that is not to say that they are not trained and skilled professionals. The education of a lab assistant does differ by state, but individuals who pursue additional certifications to boost their laboratory prowess are often the most successful.
Physical Therapy Assistant
A physical therapy assistant (PTA) helps patients regain mobility, range of motion, strength, and flexibility after they have experienced an injury. Their work is often planned with the assistance of a Physical Therapist, but many PTAs carry their work out on their own after confirming it with their PT.
PTAs must complete an accredited two year training program where they learn anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, and more. After completing their classes and obtaining the proper amount of clinical experience, aspiring PTAs can take the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) to obtain their PTA licensure and begin working.
Occupational Therapy Assistant
Certified occupational therapy assistants (COTAs) are trained to help their patients learn how to perform daily tasks when a disability might make daily life difficult. COTAs also work under a supervising occupational therapist, but often do their day-to-day work alone after getting their plans approved.
A COTA must first graduate from an accredited two-year program and, in most states, complete an internship before they are allowed to sit for the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Exam. After passing that exam, they are then able to apply for state licensure to practice as a COTA in a specific state.
Personal Care Assistant
A personal care assistant, or PCA, is a healthcare professional who provides assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) to patients who require long-term care. Their duties may include helping patients with bathing, dressing, and eating. They may also assist with mobility and other basic tasks.
Depending on the state, this professional might not have to complete a specific required course to become a PCA. That being said, successful PCAs ensure that they have become certified in life-saving efforts such as CPR, AED, and first aid. Some professionals even become CMAs or CNAs but stay as a PCA, using their increased knowledge to become better at what they are passionate about.
As you can see, the term “assistant” can have different meanings depending on the healthcare setting. It is important for everyone, be it hiring professionals, interested candidates, or healthcare patients, to understand the quality and qualifications of professional healthcare assistants.
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