How to Become a Nurse's Aide
Nurses' aides (NAs) work under the supervision of nurses or physicians to address the most fundamental elements of a patient’s care. They feed, dress, bathe and groom patients, contributing enormously to their sense of normalcy and well-being. NAs are sometimes given more medically-oriented duties such as measuring and recording temperature, blood pressure, and other vital signs. Nurses' aides also assist with the administrative duties and record-keeping that accompany patient care. Nurses' aides, also known as nursing assistants or nursing attendants, can have an enormous impact on the day-to-day experience of patients, helping them to feel well-cared for and capable as they face medical challenges or diminishing physical capacity.
Most nurses' aides work in long-term care facilities that provide rehabilitative or custodial care of patients. They may also work in the increasingly popular assisted living environments, or in general care hospitals, outpatient facilities, community health centers, physicians’ offices, or patients’ homes. Round-the-clock shiftwork usually goes along with this kind of work, and there may be holiday or weekend commitments.
NA training programs vary in duration from one month to about six months and result in a diploma or completion certificate. The shorter programs are typically designed for students with some previous healthcare experience—whether as a personal care aide, volunteer or other analogous role. Longer NA programs are better suited for students who have no previous experience.
NA programs are located in some vocational/technical high schools, community colleges and independent healthcare training schools. Because of an increasing demand for NAs, many employers (particularly nursing facilities) and the American Red Cross also offer courses. The content in NA programs includes basic health concepts and skills training. Longer programs may include additional classes such as communication skills, nutrition and human anatomy and physiology. After completing a basic educational program, NAs can take additional specialized skills training that may include working with complex patient care technology or specializing in the care of particular age groups (such as the elderly). They may also take leadership and management classes to qualify for administrative positions.
Some NA programs do not require a high school diploma or equivalent for admission, but in order to be certified as an NA, a high school diploma is required (see certification section below).
Students learn the job duty basics in their NA program, but most training occurs on the job under the mentorship of another NA or a nurse. Training typically takes a few weeks and includes information about employer policies along with specific job skills.
Licensing and/or Certification
NAs do not need a state license to practice. Certification as a Certified Nurse’s Aide/Assistant (CNA), however, is an option (and a desirable one) for better job opportunities. In addition, many employers require NAs to be certified.
The certification process may be included in some basic NA training programs or offered as separate training. Beyond the education time commitment required to be a basic nurse's aide, about 75 hours of additional training is required. To earn certification, NAs also need to pass a competency exam administered by their state. More information can be found at each state’s nurse aide registry.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
NAs need to be in good physical shape to perform the lifting, stretching and bending required to care for patient’s physical needs. The ability to communicate with members of a multidisciplinary health team is essential, as NAs are very often the primary caregivers for patients. Dependability and punctuality are also important. Above all else, NAs must have a strong desire to help people.
Opportunities for Advancement
NAs, especially CNAs, may become mentors, supervisors or trainers for other NAs. The most common career advancement choice for a former NA is to move into medical assisting, licensed practical nursing or registered nursing. While additional education and training are required to go into these fields, a background as a nurse’s aide provides excellent preparation. More information about these careers can be found at the American Association of Medical Assistants, the National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses or the American Nurses Association.
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Most NAs are paid on an hourly basis and the latest information from the U.S. Department of Labor shows the 2010 median salary of NAs at approximately $9.50/hour. This is roughly equivalent to $24,000 a year. On the low end, NAs make about $17,000 a year and the highest 10% in the field make more than $34,000.
NAs are in demand especially in nursing facilities. In coming years there will be a greater number of older Americans than ever before; more of these facilities will be built and will require more NAs to staff them. This reality is reflected in the government’s projected job growth for NAs, which is faster than average for other occupations at 20% (projected until at least the year 2020).