Medical Assistant Education and Career Overview
A medical assistant is a healthcare professional who is integral to the smooth running of any private practice, clinic, long-term care facility, hospital or outpatient facility. They work alongside nurses and doctors performing clinical and administrative duties that help improve efficiency and quality of care for patients. They are the ultimate multitaskers in the medical community and their numbers are growing as demand for healthcare increases.
Use our guide to get informed on everything you'll need to know about medical assistant education and careers.
What Do Medical Assistants Do?
Medical assistants do it all. They answer phones, assist with surgery and work in the laboratory. They code insurance forms to ensure that the office, clinic, or hospital is paid accurately and they administer medications as well. Their list of duties is very long, and that variety makes the profession appealing to many. Here is a quick list of what might be expected on any given day:
There is little that a medical assistant does not do. They work in such a variety of environments that the duties of an MA in a pediatrician's office might vary extensively from those of someone working for a cardiologist or dermatologist. For that reason it is important to get a degree so you are adequately prepared for the demands of the job. When you work through a degree program, you can gain insight into the field as a whole rather than through the specific lens of one particular office or environment.
Medical Assistant Education
To give your medical assisting career the best start possible you'll need to complete an accredited education program. There are two options for your MA education: a certificate program or a degree. Both will help you start a career in healthcare, and they each serve a unique end purpose, so be sure to consider each before making your final decision. Let's take a look at both programs:
Certificate Program: An MA certificate program is the fastest route for those who wish to enter the field quickly. These programs generally take no more than a year to complete. While they may be the fastest route to a medical assisting career, they may not provide a strong background for future learning and growth.
Degree Program: When you pursue a two-year associate's degree, you will reap the benefits of a well-rounded education. With more time and classes to choose from, you can expect your studies to include administrative-oriented work, such as accounting classes. You might also take a few chemistry, biology or even psychology courses to augment your clinical work. Since your career will require many different skills, a full two-year associate's degree program could be beneficial to you every single day.
Not only will a degree program pay off in your first years on the job, but it will allow you to pursue higher degrees or credentials later on. If you choose a certificate program, you may later need to go back to school and take courses in order to finish your associate's degree before you can advance in the field. Since you may need to complete the associate's anyway, you may choose to complete your degree program prior to beginning your career.
What to Look for in a Medical Assistant Program
When you begin researching schools, there are a few key elements you'll need to investigate and consider. These include accreditation, job placement and flexibility. Your school should be accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). When you have a degree or certificate from a program that has been accredited by either of these professional agencies you can then sit for the exam to become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA).
When you discuss enrollment with an admissions counselor, try to find out how well the program supports its graduates in finding a job. In particular ask about their externship program, which will provide you with a number of hours of real-world experience. This final capstone to your education could result in a job offer either from your mentor at the externship site, or fill your resume with the experience you'll need for a position elsewhere.
Finally, make sure that your school is flexible enough to fit your schedule. If you are working or have a family this can be a serious concern. You'll need to make your education a priority, as it is the key to your future, so investigate the possibility of online courses as a solution. However, always be certain that the school has the proper accreditation and job-placement facilities in place.
Medical Assisting Courses
Your career will encompass a range of skills and responsibilities and your education will reflect that complexity. For a medical assisting concentration, you'll take classes that will inform the clinical and administrative sides of the MA career. Your course load may include some or all of these:
Anatomy/Physiology–You will need to know how the human body is constructed, including knowledge of systems and how they interact.
Examination Techniques–You will need to know how to take vital signs, administer EKGs and even take samples from patients.
Surgical Procedures–This course will give you a good basis for handling in-office surgical procedures, including maintaining a sterile environment and understanding the tools in the surgical theater.
Office Management–Keeping track of files, doing basic bookkeeping and other administrative tasks are vital to being an effective MA.
Computer Skills–Every medical office relies upon your ability to properly operate a computer and this course will ensure that you are skilled in the Electronic Health Record and Office software programs you'll be using on then job.
Communication–MAs need to be able to communicate with a wide range of people, from doctors and nurses to the different personality types you're are likely to encounter in your patient load.
Insurance Processing–Learning proper codes for insurance forms is vital. Otherwise, pat6ients may not be billed correctly and doctors may not be paid for their services.
What are the Best Qualities and Traits of an MA?
Medical assistants need to be prepared for anything. Therefore it's not inaccurate to say that one of the key qualities of a good medical assistant is flexibility. Though everyone is different, here is a list of the top skills and qualities you may desire to cultivate as an MA:
Attention to detail. As an MA, the tiniest details can mean a lot for many patients. Too much or too little of any medication may be critical, so absolute precision is of the essence. This quality is also pertinent in the administrative aspects of the job, as insurance codes are unforgiving and appointment times should be made carefully.
Flexibility and Multi-tasking. Medical assistants need to be able to change gears on a dime. In one moment you might be dressing a wound, but could be called suddenly to administer an EKG before taking over desk duties at lunch hour. Not all MAs need to shift gears quite that quickly but it is vital to be prepared, and your patients—and the other office staff—will thank you.
Communication. Technical jargon is part of the landscape in the healthcare field. You will need to know the names of medications, body parts and medical conditions so that you can communicate with your colleagues, and it's just as vital to be able to lend an empathetic ear to a patient in need.
Open the Door to the Future Today
A career as a medical assistant starts with you sending that first email to an admissions counselor at an accredited school. If you've dreamed of working as a healthcare professional in a role that helps others, there is no time like the present to begin making that dream a reality.