How to Transition from Medical Assistant to Registered Nurse

Medical assisting can be a rewarding career path to follow in itself and becoming qualified as a medical assistant is a worthy accomplishment. Medical assistants have varied responsibilities, from front office tasks such as running a medical office and billing and coding, to clinical duties such as taking vital signs and assisting physicians with routine duties. However, after getting to know the healthcare profession and the different jobs people do, some medical assistants decide they want to be more involved in hands on patient care, or have more responsibilities, and decide to upgrade their qualifications by training to become a registered nurse (RN).

Medical assistants thinking of changing to a career in nursing have the advantage of having had real world experience of working in the healthcare system. Being a medical assistant is a good way to become familiar with working in the field of patient care and medical assistants will already have some of the basic skills and knowledge needed to be a nurse.

Why Switch From MA to RN?

Becoming a RN will bring the benefits of increased responsibilities and greater autonomy. No matter how much experience they have, medical assistants are limited in the tasks they are permitted to perform. They must be supervised in their work by a physician or nurse that is responsible for delegating tasks to them and they have limited freedom to make decisions on their own.
In contrast, RNs have more autonomy to carry out tasks unsupervised and to take on more responsibilities for direct patient care. For example, RNs can perform patient examinations, assess patient symptoms and dress wounds, whereas medical assistants are limited to more routine tasks such as taking vital signs and scheduling appointments.

In common with medical assisting and many other healthcare professions, the demand for nurses has increased in recent years and job growth in the occupation is set to continue (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)). While the average wage for a medical assistant is around $32,000, registered nurses earn an average salary of $71,000, with starting salaries ranging from $30,000 to $50,000. So, as well as the attraction of more responsibilities and autonomy, there is also a financial incentive to make the move from medical assisting to nursing.

Once trained as a nurse, medical assistants will be able to choose either to work as generalist or to specialize in a particular area that interests them, such as pediatrics for example. Becoming a RN is a major accomplishment, but some ambitious registered nurses go on to earn a graduate degree to further advance their career and become advanced practitioner nurses.

How Can a Medical Assistant Become a Registered Nurse?

In order to advance to a more responsible position and become qualified as a RN, medical assistants will need to go to nursing school just like anyone else and on completion of their studies sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to become licensed by the state board of nursing, as well as complete a background check.

There are three main types of training program for becoming a RN: A Diploma in Nursing at a vocational school; a 2-3 year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) at a community college or vocational school ; or a 4 year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BS/BSN) at a community college or university. Online nursing degree programs are becoming more common and can sometimes be completed in less time than a traditional classroom based program.

Associate Degree programs focus on training nursing students in patient care skills and include real world based nursing experience in a clinical setting. Thanks to their prior experience, medical assistants will have an advantage over other students when it comes to gaining practical experience in a healthcare facility. BSN programs involve more in-depth class work and lab lessons as well as more hours of practical nursing experience. Registered nurses with a BSN will have more opportunities to advance into a management role in their future nursing career.

Alternatively, medical assistants who already have a graduate degree may be eligible to take a graduate course such as a Masters Degree of Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Nursing (DNP), but will still be required to sit for the NCLEX-RN examination in order to become licensed.

Unlike for nurses going from LPN to RN, there are no medical assistant to RN bridge programs and there is no accelerated process for a medical assistant transitioning to a registered nurse. Some nursing schools may allow medical assistants to transfer credits for classes they studied on their medical assistant degree or certificate program, as there is some overlap of skills. Transfer credit for applicable courses is considered on an individual basis by each school and can reduce the cost and time it takes to train. However, this is not always a good idea, as teaching and assessment methods may differ, and RN classes are likely to go into more detail.

Although there are no formal MA to RN programs and limited transfer credit options, medical assistants will find their experience of working in a medical office useful and should find many of the courses easier to learn than other students who haven’t previously worked in the medical field. Medical assistants will be familiar with a clinical environment and already have some knowledge of subjects such as medical terminology and basic procedures, as well as patient care skills.

What Financial Aid is Available to Help Medical Assistants Become Registered Nurses?

Medical assistants that are currently employed are likely to be concerned about the financial impact of giving up their job to go back to school full time. The cost of attending nursing school can be significant, with tuition, fees and books costing several thousands of dollars. Fortunately financial aid is available from a number of sources, including federal grants and loans, and private scholarships.

There are also loan forgiveness programs that offer forgiveness on a certain proportion of student loans in return for RNs working in specified facilities for agreed periods of time, such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF)  and the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program.

Ultimately which path a medical assistant should take to become a registered nurse depends on their career goals and personal circumstances. A medical assistant who wants to be more involved in hands on patient care may choose a shorter 2 year Associate Degree than a medical assistant who has ambitions to work in a management position as a RN, who may decide a BSN program will open more doors in their future career. Whichever educational route a medical assistant chooses to take to become a RN, once they have passed the NCLEX-RN exam they will be licensed to work in both the US and Canada.

More details on transitioning from a MA to RN can be obtained from nursing schools. Medical assistants have a number of options to explore. Below are some useful resources to help medical assistants who are considering making the move to nursing.

Useful Resources