Working as a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, is no easy thing. Behind the scenes, or at least beyond what most visitors see, CNAs carry out the vast majority of the tasks needed to help keep hospitals and long-term care centers working. As the primary caregivers for millions of recovering, terminal, or aging patients, CNAs must be well prepared to their jobs, and do them well.
Certified nursing assistants are employed by hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, and private individuals to take care of patients’ everyday needs. A large amount of a CNA’s work involves personal care duties such as bathing, dressing, and feeding patients, as well as brushing teeth and combing hair. CNAs help patients in and out of bed, often by lifting or carrying them, and assist them with walking as they travel to and from surgeries and treatments. In certain settings–for example, senior-care and other assisted-living facilities–certified nursing assistants are responsible for helping patients get daily exercise, as well as leading or participating in field trips or group activities.
In almost all work environments, CNAs answer patients’ calls for help, take their vital signs, and monitor their behavior and physical condition for progress or deterioration. This level of hands-on interaction also means that CNAs do tasks that some might shy away from, including changing bed pans or soiled undergarments. All CNAs work under the supervision of an experienced nurse, and report any problems or worsening in a patient’s condition to the facility staff. Other job requirements may include stocking and keeping storerooms tidy, cleaning patient rooms, doing laundry, and assisting with minor medical procedures.
Most of all, certified nursing assistants must have plenty of compassion and patience, and a deep level of concern for others. Because CNAs work with seriously ill or injured patients, good communication skills are key, even when the other party is confused, upset, uncooperative, or irritable. The position also calls for dedication and dependability, as well as a certain degree of humility, since CNAs must be able to take orders, report to supervisors, work on routine or even repetitive tasks daily, and take on less-than-glamorous activities like washing soiled linens or brushing patients’ teeth. For a CNA to succeed, he or she must be able to put such services in perspective and focus on the greater positive effects they bring.
Physically, certified nursing assistants need strength and the ability to stand and walk for extended periods, as most of their day is spent on their feet, attending to patients and escorting them to and from therapies, often being leaned on for support. Upper body strength, for lifting or helping patients out of bed and bath, is also a must.
Finally, good personal habits are necessary. Medical facilities need to be as sterile as possible, and excellent hygiene and organizational habits not only keep patients clean and safe from sickness and infection, but also keep the CNA healthy, too.
Educational Background and Certification
In most states, a high school diploma or GED is sufficient to start the process of becoming a CNA. From there, applicants are trained in state-approved programs that usually take 6 to 12 weeks to finish; different states have different requirements for the number of credit-hours to be completed, but most candidates need to log 50 to 75 hours before becoming eligible to sit for certification tests. Check with your state Nurse’s Aide Registry or Department of Health for more specific details about training requirements.
Certification exams must be passed before any nursing assistant can work in a nursing home, or actually be a CNA. Specific tests differ across the states, but generally consist of a written test and a practical exam. For the written portion of the test, examinees answer questions relating to patient care, disease prevention, general safety, and other topics covered during training. The practical or clinical trial asks students to put this knowledge in action and demonstrate proper techniques and skills for handling patients safely, respecting their privacy, and maintaining a clean and orderly environment.
Once the test is passed, the student becomes certified, and their name is added to the state registry of certified nursing assistants. Most states require CNAs to complete continuing education units–either on the job or in the classroom–every two to four years, but, by this point, the main obstacles to certification have been removed, and the newly-minted CNA is ready to work.