Both medical assistants and medical administrative assistants play important roles in healthcare settings. They both work with patients and help ensure that a medical office or care facility runs smoothly, so it’s easy to get these two very similar-sounding job titles confused. However, there is actually a significant difference between the two.
The biggest difference? Medical assistants provide patient care. Medical administrative assistants don’t. Other major differences include the education you’ll need and the salary you can earn.
Perhaps one of these important roles is right for you?
In this Article
Roles and Responsibilities
There are significant differences between the responsibilities that medical assistants and medical administrative assistants can take on. Medical administrative assistants perform the clerical duties needed to make a medical facility run smoothly. They answer phones, schedule appointments, handle billing, and more. A medical administrative assistant is often the “face” of a medical practice, greeting patients when they arrive and helping them check in for appointments.
What’s the Difference?
A medical assistant is able to take on a variety of patient care tasks. The exact duties of a medical assistant will depend on the practice and the laws of the state. However, many medical assistants take vital signs, administer vaccines, assist with vaccines, and provide patient education.
Medical assistants take on a variety of patient care tasks depending on the laws of the state in which they practice.
In very small medical practices, a medical assistant might take on clerical tasks, too. For example, in a private physician’s office, a medical assistant might check in patients, schedule appointments, and provide clinical patient care.
Conversely, larger medical practices will generally employ both medical administrative assistants and medical assistants. The medical administrative assistants will handle front desk operations, while the medical assistants will work in exam rooms and do clinical tasks.
Medical Assistant vs Medical Administrative Assistant Job Duties
These duties are examples of common responsibilities for each role. Your exact duties will depend on where you work.
Alternative Medical Assistant Roles
Until recently, there wasn’t much room for medical assistants to expand their careers and advance their roles without returning to school or earning a different credential. However, healthcare has seen major changes over the past several years, largely due to the impact of the Affordable Care Act.
These changes have resulted in new healthcare roles in clinics across the country. These roles help health clinics and primary care offices provide more complete care. These aren’t traditional medical assistant roles, but they’re ones that medical assistants with education and credentials can jump into.
“To meet the rapidly evolving outpatient-care landscape, health systems and providers have created a variety of important and challenging staff positions, some of which did not exist six or seven years ago,” says Donald A. Balasa, JD, MBA, the CEO and legal counsel for the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
These new roles include:
- A health coach in a primary care office serves to bridge the communication gap between physicians and patients. They help patients understand their conditions and the steps they need to take to manage them. For example, a health coach might help a patient who has recently been diagnosed with a heart condition develop a heart-healthy eating plan.
Patient care coordinators:
- A patient care coordinator is responsible for making sure a patient’s care is communicated to all the providers they see. For example, they can make sure that test results ordered by a specialist are reported to the primary care physician, too. They can also help patients understand the roles different members of their care team will play.
- A patient advocate helps identify and solve problems that could prevent a patient from receiving the care they need. For example, if a patient is having trouble getting to appointments, a patient advocate might arrange transportation for them.
What Education Do I Need?
Both medical assistants and medical administrative assistants need at least a high school diploma or GED to work in the field. There are no formal higher educational requirements for either role. However, completing an educational program can boost your career. Most employers favor candidates who’ve completed a certificate program or earned a diploma or degree.
Educational options for medical assistants include:
Educational options for medical administrative assistants include:
Keep in mind that your classes for a medical assistant program will include clinical and science coursework. Your classes for medical office administration will not.
Do I Need to be Licensed or Certified?
There are no national licensing or certification requirements for either role. However, there are optional certifications available for each role. Earning them can be a smart career move and can open more job opportunities for you. While states don’t require certification, many employers will look for credentials in the job applications they receive.
Medical Assistant Credentials
Medical assistants need to be credentialed to perform certain tasks. This includes national requirements set by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and state-specific requirements. Some states have what’s called a partial licensing requirement, meaning that you don’t need a license to work as a medical assistant in the state, but you do need to obtain licensing to perform certain tasks.
Additionally, medical assistants in Washington need to meet educational credentialing requirements before they can register with the state board of health and work as a medical assistant in the state.
“North Dakota and Nebraska have partial licensing for administration of medication, including by means of certain types of injections. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona, and California have education and/or credentialing requirements in order for medical assistants to be delegated certain tasks and to assume certain responsibilities,” Basala says.
This could mean that without a credential of some kind, you’d be limited in roles you could apply for. This is true even in states that don’t have form requirements. That makes earning a credential a smart choice for medical assistants.
Two of the most popular options for medical assistants include:
Medical Administrative Assistant Credentials
There are fewer formal requirements for medical administrative assistant credentialing. It’s always optional. That doesn’t mean earning a credential isn’t a good idea. It’s a great way to show employers you’re a dedicated professional with advanced skills. Medical administrative assistants can choose from these options:
Medical assistants and medical administrative assistants make very similar salaries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that medical assistants earned a median annual salary of $35,850 in 2020. Medical administrative assistants, classified as “secretaries and administrative assistants” by the BLS, earned a median annual salary of $37,350 in 2020.
Keep in mind that these numbers are just averages. Your earnings might be higher or lower depending on your employer, education, and experience.
Both roles are projected to see growth over the next decade. Medical assistant roles in particular are seeing an astounding amount of growth. In fact, the BLS predicts a 19% increase in medical assistant jobs by 2029. Medical administrative assistant roles are projected to see smaller growth of 10% by 2029.
There are also ways for medical assistants and medical administrative assistants to advance their careers. With additional education and training, you can turn your experience into another role.
For example, medical assistants with an associate degree from an accredited school might be able to use some of their credits toward earning RN licensure. You’ll still need to complete additional courses, but this can help fast-track your studies. Similarly, medical administrative assistants with an associate degree could use some of their credits toward a bachelor’s degree. With a bachelor’s in healthcare administration, for example, roles like hospital administrator or medical office manager can be pursued.
You could advance beyond your job as an assistant by applying associate degree credits toward a bachelor’s degree, opening up possible jobs such as registered nurse or medical office manager.
Which Job is Right for Me?
There is one major question to ask yourself when you’re considering a medical assistant or medical administrative assistant career:
“Do I want to perform patient care?”
Medical Assistant Skills
Think about your comfort with medical procedures, needles, blood, and more. If you’re excited about the idea of tackling those duties, a medical assistant career might be a great fit. Conversely, if you’d prefer to handle organizational tasks and avoid clinical work, a role as a medical administrative assistant would be better for you.
A medical assistant role requires empathy and compassion, since you’ll be working directly with patients.
Important skills for medical assistants include:
Remember that as a medical assistant you’ll often spend time with patients one-on-one. You’ll need strong people skills as well as clinical skills to succeed in the role. When you’re providing care, you might need to answer questions and provide patient education as well. Plus, you’ll need to be able to communicate with doctors and follow any instructions they give.
Medical Administrative Assistant Skills
Medical administrative assistants are often the first person people see when they come into the office. They’ll need to be friendly with strong communication skills to succeed in the role. Since they’re responsible for tasks like scheduling and record keeping, strong organizational skills are also a must.
A medical administrative assistant role requires flexibility and attention to detail, since you’ll be scheduling appointments and performing data entry.
They also need to be comfortable with computers and other technology. Other skills that can help a medical administrative assistant succeed include:
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