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Both nursing assistant and home health aide are careers in the health care industry that you can attain without investing much time and work earning an education. These careers don’t offer the high salary of a registered nurse (RN) role, and the scope of their job duties is considerably smaller. If you aspire to become a nurse or work in another health care role, you might find value in working as a nursing assistant or home health aide as you study to earn a nursing degree.

Nursing assistant vs. home health aide

IMAGE SOURCE: Truckee Meadows Community College, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license

Nursing Assistant Education and Responsibilities

A nursing assistant is a health care worker who provides support to nursing staff and basic care to patients. Also called nursing aides, they work under the supervision of registered nurses (RNs) in facilities such as nursing homes and hospitals. Though they report to RNs, in many facilities, nursing assistants may act as the primary caregivers to patients, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

While nursing assistants do some basic nursing tasks, such as taking and recording vital signs and health concerns to report to RNs, many of their duties focus more closely on helping patients with activities such as bathing, dressing, eating and repositioning. In some instances, a nursing assistant will provide support to doctors or nurses as they perform procedures on patients, document patient information in medical charts and even dispense medication.

To get started in the career, you must complete a nursing assistant education program approved by your state. Community colleges and technical schools offer these programs, but so do some hospitals, high schools and nursing homes, according to the BLS. In a nursing assistant program, you will learn how to provide basic nursing care to patients and practice applying those principles in clinical settings. These education programs, which can be completed in as little as four to six weeks, often result in a diploma or certificate. To attain the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) title or an equivalent title in your state, you will need to earn a passing score on a competency exam.

Nursing assistants earn a median wage of $27,520 per year. The BLS predicts a positive job outlook for this occupation, with an 11 percent increase in opportunities expected over a decade.

There are about 1.5 million nursing assistants working in the United States, most in settings such as nursing care facilities and hospitals, the BLS reported.

The Job of a Home Health Aide

Like nursing assistants, home health aides spend much of their time helping patients with daily living activities such as bathing and dressing. The biggest difference between the two career paths is that home health aides travel to a patient’s home to assist with these activities, while nursing assistants mostly work in medical facilities. The job duties for a home health aide are varied and depend in part on the regulations in their state. Many of a home health aide’s tasks are non-medical in nature and can include housekeeping duties, food shopping and meal preparation. In states in which home health aides are permitted to provide basic medical services, they might record vital signs, administer medications and change bandages, according to the BLS. Around 45 percent of home health aides work for home health care services, while 23 percent work for agencies that provide services for elderly or disabled patients.

While you do not need a college degree to work as a home health aide, you may need some formal education or training, depending on your employer and the state in which you work. These education programs are often offered by vocational schools and community colleges, and there are some online home health care training programs. You may be able to complete the training you need for a role as a home health aide in a matter of weeks.

Students in a home health aide program might study the principles and practices of infection control, personal hygiene, basic nutrition and the measurement and recording of vital signs, the BLS reported. Additionally, on-the-job training often includes instruction in performing housekeeping tasks. Many home health aides find it valuable to learn basic safety techniques, such as CPR. Once you complete any training required by your state and your employer, you may need to take a competency exam and attain certification.

Home health aides earn a median salary of $23,210, somewhat lower than that of nursing assistants. However, the career path is seeing rapid job growth, with the BLS expecting opportunities for home health aides to rise by 47 percent. That will increase the number of home health aides from 911,500 to 1,342,700 in just 10 years.

In addition to home health aides, there are currently 2,016,100 personal care aides working in the U.S., whose job is to provide exclusively non-medical care services that include cooking, cleaning and companionship.

Is a Nursing Assistant or Home Health Aide Role Right for You?

Because you don’t need a college degree to become a nursing assistant or a home health aide, it doesn’t take a lot of time or money to get started in these career paths. However, the relatively low rate of pay – more than $10,000 below the median for all occupations – and high physical and emotional demands make it easy to become burnt out in both of these jobs, according to the BLS.

If you are thinking about becoming a nursing assistant or a home health aide, consider whether you will be happy with your earning potential in the long run and consider what options for advancement may make sense to you.

You might find that either of these jobs makes a good stepping stone for a future career in nursing.