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What’s the Difference Between a Certified Medical Assistant and a Registered Medical Assistant?

Earning either a CMA or RMA credential may help you gain medical assistant skills.

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stephanie behring

Written and reported by:
By Stephanie Behring
Contributing Writer

Credentials are important in healthcare. They often signify a professional’s level of education and may dictate the duties they can take on. If you’ve been considering a medical assistant career, you might have seen the terms Certificated Medical Assistant (CMA) and Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) used to designate medical assistants who’ve earned a credential in their field.

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You might be wondering how these certifications differ, or if one credential is better than the other. In many healthcare roles, credential differences signify different roles and responsibilities, or levels of seniority within a profession. For example, a registered nurse (RN) holds a more advanced credential than a licensed practical nurse (LPN). So, is that the case for the CMA and RMA credentials?

No, not really. A CMA and an RMA perform the same duties and can apply for the same roles. The biggest difference is the educational background and training each require. Earning either credential may help you in your career or be a preference to employers. But the credentials do differ, and learning how they do can help you know which is the best fit.

Certificate vs Certification

A certificate is awarded by an educational institution, and signifies that a student has satisfactorily completed a given curriculum. Certificate programs can help students prepare for certification exams.
A certification is generally awarded by a trade group after an individual has met certain professional requirements (e.g. earned a specific degree, worked professionally in a given field for a set amount of time, etc.) and passed a certification exam.

In short, a certificate is evidence that someone has completed an educational program, while a certification denotes that someone has met a certain set of professional criteria and/or passed an exam.

Not all programs offered are designed to meet state educator licensing or advancement requirements; however, it may assist candidates in gaining these approvals in their state of residence depending on those requirements. Contact the state board of education in the applicable state(s) for requirements.


The Differences, Detailed

One of the primary differences is the eligibility requirements for each. The most common way to become eligible for either RMA or CMA credentials is to earn a medical assistant degree from an accredited program. However, RMA credentialing has a few other eligibility paths—including on-the-job experience and military medic training—that can take the place of a formal educational program.

Certified Medical AssistantRegistered Medical Assistant
Training Needed:Only graduates of accredited medical assisting programs are eligible Graduates of accredited medical assisting programs, medical assistants with military training, medical assistants with at least five years of experience, and people who have taught medical assistant courses are eligible
Historic Presence: Offered since 1963 Offered since 1972
Offered by: American Association of Medical Assistants American Medical Technologists
How to Verify: Employers can verify CMA certification on the AAMA website RMA credentialed medical assistants can join AMT’s network of healthcare professionals
Renewal Cycle: Needs renewal every five years Needs renewal every three years

The CMA has been offered since 1963 and is older than the RMA credential. That makes the CMA a bit more widely known, and it may be preferred by some employers. But that doesn’t mean the RMA is unheard of. It’s also been around for nearly 50 years, and today both certifications are good options for medical assistants.

Differences aside, both credentials are equally weighted throughout the medial assistant industry.

“There are no regional preferences for certifications,” says Donald A. Balasa, JD, MBA; CEO and legal counsel for the American Association of Medical Assistants, who has authored many papers on medical assistants and their roles, “and there does not appear to be a preference based on medical specialty.”

Is an RMA Credential and an American Registry of Medical Assistants Membership the Same Thing?

Earning the RMA credential from American Medical Technologists isn’t the same as being accepted to the American Registry of Medical Assistants (ARMA). In fact, being listed on the ARMA isn’t a credential at all. You don’t need to take an exam to meet specific requirements to be included on the ARMA list. Medical assistants with a valid Social Security Number, high school diploma or GED, and proof of any education in medical assisting or any work in the field may be enough to earn a place on this list.

Being on the ARMA list isn’t a bad idea. It shows employers that you’re dedicated to your career and have been accepted by a national body. However, it’s not a credential and it doesn’t meet CMS requirements. Medical assistants who are looking to advance their skills should consider being on the ARMA list and holding an RMA or CMA credential.

What About Other Types of Medical Assistant Certifications?

There are a few other medical assistant certifications offered. However, these certifications are not as widely recognized. They also don’t qualify a medical assistant to perform some jobs under guidelines established by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). These certifications are an option, but they’re probably not the best use of your time, money, or effort.

Why is Certification Important?

Medical assistant credentials are voluntary in almost all states. You don’t need to earn CMA or RMA status to work as a medical assistant. However, earning certification is a smart professional move. A big part of this belief came from the CMS in the mid-2000s. The guidelines require that all medical assistants who enter laboratory, radiology, or medication orders into an electronic health records (EHR) system hold a credential.

“By differentiating credentialed medical assistants from those who are uncredentialed, the CMS places importance on such credentials,” Basala said.

In order to be considered a credentialed medical assistant by CMS, you need to earn a credential that is recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). There are currently two medical assistant credentials recognized by NCCA:

Both credentials are national, so you can take them with you if you move states during your career.

In order for medical assistants to enter orders into an Electronic Health Record, they must hold a CMA or RMA credential.

Who Should Be Certified?

Medical assistants can choose whether to earn certification. But you may be able to take on more roles and potentially earn a higher salary. Plus, at any facility that accepts Medicare or Medicaid payments, you’ll need a credential to enter medication orders and other data into EHR.

No matter what credential you earn, your scope of practice will be limited by your state. While medical assistants are not currently required to be licensed or certified by states, they do have other requirements that spell out what tasks a medical assistant is able to perform. For example, medical assistants in California are permitted to administer medications, but medical assistants in Connecticut are not.

Plus, as healthcare continues to change and grow in the 21st century, acknowledgement that you are continually learning new skills may show your adaptability in a continually changing landscape.

“Appropriately educated and credentialed medical assistants such as CMAs meet the criteria for clinical staff for several well-known and new programs (such as the) Medicare Chronic Care Management (CCM) and Transitional Care Management (TCM) programs,” Basala says.

Which Certification is Best for Me?

The first factor in determining what certification might be best for you to pursue is your education. If you haven’t graduated from an accredited medical assisting program, you can earn RMA certification. If you have completed an accredited program, you can choose either the CMA or RMA credential. It can help to check out job postings by employers in your area to see what credential they’re looking for.

If you really can’t decide, earning both is always an option. In fact, many medical assistants have an RMA and CMA credential. While it’s not necessary to earn both, it can be a good idea. You’ll never have to worry that you don’t meet an employer’s requirements if you have both credentials.

The Certification Process

The process of earning either the CMA or RMA is very similar. First, you’ll need to be eligible. CMA applicants must complete a formal, accredited medical assisting program, while RMA applicants can substitute work experience, military-sponsored medical training, or teaching experience for completion of an accredited program.

Formal medical assisting programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). You can earn either a certificate or an associate degree as long as the program is accredited.

Once you complete a program or show that you have military training or teaching experience, you can apply to take your exam.

About the Exams

Both the CMA and RMA exams have around 200 questions, and both cover the clinical and administrative knowledge you need to succeed as a medical assistant. The exams have similar costs as well: You’ll pay $125 to sit for the CMA exam and $120 to sit for the RMA exam. You’ll need to submit proof of your education or experience to take either test. You’ll earn your CMA or RMA credential once you pass your exam.

Which Certification Pays More?

Both the CMA and RMA certifications allow you to apply for the same roles. There is no substantial difference in pay for medical assistants who have either certification. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 Occupational Employment Statistics, medical assistants earned a median annual salary of $38,270.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Medical assisting is one of the fastest-growing careers in the nation. The BLS projects an 13.9% increase in the field by 2031. That makes now a great time to earn your education and get a credential in the field.

The pandemic has had a drastic effect on the roles of medical assistants, says Basala, making them more critical than ever in the hierarchy of healthcare providers.

“Although medical assistants are employed primarily in ambulatory care during normal times, they have more recently been asked to work in the acute care environment because of the enormous need to deploy skilled and dedicated health professionals to where they are most needed,” Basala says. “Indeed, executive orders of state governors have reflected the necessity of giving knowledgeable and competent medical assistants more responsibility.”

If you’re having trouble deciding which certification to earn, remember that you earn both. You’ll have to pay for and take two exams, but you’ll have the security of knowing you’ll always have the credential an employer is looking for. So, if you qualify for both the CMA and the RMA through your education, earning both is a great idea. 

donald balasa

With professional insight from:
Donald A. Balasa, JD, MBA
CEO and Legal Counsel, AAMA