What is a PCA? CNA vs. PCA

pca vs. cna

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) and a patient care assistant (or a PCA – the medical abbreviation) are often thought of as two names for the same job. However, these positions do have differences between them in terms of their responsibilities, and it can even vary a bit more from state to state. In addition, employers may use one title over the other as a reference to a specific level of classes that an employee has completed.

Should you be a CNA or a PCA nurse?

You’ll want to acquaint yourself with the distinguishing characteristics of these two roles before enrolling in a CNA program to gain either certification. Knowing this information can help you determine what sort of education and experience is required to land a PCA or CNA position. It also might make your search easier if you know whether PCA or CNAs are more sought after in your geographic area.

Requirements to become a PCA

In many states, PCA is a more generic term any entry-level staff nurse can use. PCAs are often only required to have a high school diploma or equivalent, although some employers require workers to have completed an EKG course. PCA classes takes less time than CNA classes – as little as two weeks in some states for PCA certification. You can also find PCA classes online, which is not the case with most CNA programs.

The requirements to become a CNA are much more stringent than for a PCA. You’ll need to pass a course, certified by your state, that typically lasts six to twelve weeks. These classes, depending on your state, will require anywhere from 75 to over 100 hours of in class and hands-on learning. Check out our guide to learn more about how to become a CNA.

Job description of a PCA

PCAs provide basic bedside care and help patients with daily activities such as getting out of bed, eating, bathing and taking medicine. They may transfer patients from one place to another, including the floor they were admitted from or into a wheelchair. PCAs follow instructions given by nurses and doctors on how much assistance is needed with activities of daily living and physical care. PCAs don’t typically give any medications, and they never insert catheters or administer enemas.

Much like a CNA, a PCA works under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN), licensed practical nurse (LPN) or nursing assistant (NA). This person is often in charge of PCA staff and may be called a PCA supervisor, PCA manager or PCA unit director.

PCA meaning, and differences, by state

In states where PCAs are not certified by the state/province, other titles may be used for this position. One example is activity aide. In other states, you might see PC technicians instead of PCAs. In California, for instance, PC assistants provide many patient care services that CNAs do elsewhere in the United States. PCAs in California receive PCA classes and PCA certification.

In Washington state, PCAs are called PC technicians, whereas CNAs are called nursing assistants. In Louisiana, a PCA might be a PCT or patient care technician. CNAs can also be known as certified nursing assistants, nurse’s aides or nursing aide trainees. PCAs might also go by family care attendants, home health aides or homemakers’ assistants. In certain areas of the United States, CNA is still used to describe PCA job duties and responsibilities because there isn’t much distinction between the two positions. This is especially true in smaller healthcare facilities where PCAs do not assist with changing dressings and catheterization procedures often performed by CNAs in hospitals and nursing homes.

So, at the end of the day what’s the difference between PCA and CNA? 

PCAs provide personal care to patients of all ages and backgrounds. PCAs must complete PCA classes and certification before they can begin work in their position, which usually takes less than two weeks unless they need to be recertified after a certain time period of employment. CNAs perform many more patient care duties such as taking vital signs, bathing patients, feeding them, and assisting with oral hygiene such as tooth brushing or flossing. CNAs can also work with patients on critical procedures like range of motion exercises to help them maintain mobility. 

The CNA schools displayed in this section offer tuition-based programs.

CNAs need to have on-the-job learning from an experienced CNA before they can do these important tasks by themselves. CNAs also take part in a formal program that includes classroom instruction and supervised clinical experience. They receive more hours of classes than PCAs. With more coursework and experience often comes higher pay. It’s not unusual for a CNA’s salary to be 20%-50% more than a PCA in the same state. So, that might help you with your decisions as well. 

If you are considering a PCA or CNA job, the more you know about PCA vs CNA responsibilities, the better equipped you will be to decide whether this is the right career for you.

Michael Schultz, RN
Registered Nurse

Michael Schultz is a registered nurse with work experience at Sparrow Health, Holland Home Rehab, Ingham Regional Medical, and Spectrum Health. He has worked as a medical and surgical nurse and has expertise in gastrointestinal medicine.  Michael graduated from LCC in 2003 and subsequently worked admitting patients at Sparrow ER/Urgent Care for 2 years.  After that, Michael worked for 6 years at Ingham Regional Medical Center, followed by 7 years in Gastrointestinal/Genitourinary at Spectrum Health.