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Learn to Become a Medical Assistant in 6 Steps

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Medical assistants work both with patients and medical teams providing care. This in-demand occupation is a mix of administrative and clinical work with a broad range of responsibilities.

Steps to Become a Medical Assistant

Unlike some healthcare careers, the steps to become a medical assistant are minimal. You’ll need to complete an education program and earn professional certification. To enroll in medical assistant school, you’ll need a high school diploma or GED.

Earn your high school diploma or GED.

close up image of diploma being handed to graduate

Prospective medical assisting students must earn either a high school diploma or GED before enrolling in an accredited medical assisting program.

Enroll in and complete a medical assisting program.

woman researching educational programs on laptop

To become a medical assistant, you can earn a certificate/diploma, or an associate degree. Your career aspirations should dictate the type of program you choose.

For instance, if you’re looking to enter the workforce as soon as possible, a certificate program may be your choice. These programs last between nine and 12 months and provide you with a medical assisting education and hands-on experience.

If you plan to pursue more education in the future, an associate degree will provide you with a solid foundation. An associate degree takes about two years to compete and provides medical assisting and liberal arts education and hands-on experience. Because this education is more extensive, it may provide more opportunities for advancement or higher pay.

Both types of programs will cover many of the same topics, including first-aid, medical law and ethics, anatomy, computer applications, pharmacology, recordkeeping, patient relations, medical billing, and coding. Additionally, both an associate degree and diploma may be, at least in part, completed online.

Be sure to choose a program that is accredited. Without accreditation, you won’t be able to earn professional certifications.

Complete an externship or internship.

medical assistant treating wound on elderly male patient's arm

An externship or internship is a way to get clinical experience before you enter the working world. Both allow you to put your classroom learning to the test and get a feel for what working as a medical assistant is truly like.

Externships and internships are generally the same, but externships are shorter, lasting anywhere from a couple of weeks to two months, while internships usually are several months. This is a time to ask questions, develop skills, and make connections in the field.

Select and earn a medical assisting certification.

medical assistant writing notes in chart

A certification in medical assisting denotes that you are knowledgeable in the field and can further signify that you are committed to the profession. While earning a certification is not a strict requirement to enter the field, many employers prefer it, it can play a role in earning a higher salary, and can potentially allow you to take on more complex tasks.

There are seven basic certifications for medical assistants. No matter which certification you earn, you’ll be required to pass an exam covering a wide range of topics related to medical assisting. That said, some employers prefer a particular certification, so it is a good idea to research healthcare organizations in your area to whether they preference one in particular.

Apply and interview for positions.

woman interviewing for job with man in glasses

Of course, you cannot find work as a medical assistant without first applying and interviewing for the position. There are many paths to finding potential job opportunities including LinkedIn and other job boards, but it might be a good idea to lean on the network you created during your internship or externship to help find work. You can also research medical assisting trade groups, like the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) which tend to have lists of potential employers.

Keep your certification(s) current with continuing education.

female medical assistant researching continuing education opportunities on handheld electronic device

Certifications in medical assisting don’t remain valid indefinitely. Keeping your certification current is an important aspect of remaining an attractive potential candidate for new positions or promotions in your current organization. While requirements vary from certification to certification, some common requirements include retaking and passing an exam or earning a specific number of continuing education credits. Recertification might also require you to pay a fee to the certifying body.

Technology and Trends

Medical assistants must be tech-savvy, so consider whether you want to work with software and specialized medical devices on a daily basis. You’ll have the opportunity to work with nebulizers and spirometers, among other tools, and you’ll need to master medical and office software.

Medical assistants must be tech-savvy, so consider whether you want to work with software and specialized medical devices on a daily basis.

Most hospitals and physicians also use electronic health records (EHRs) to manage patient information. Since medical assistants are responsible for managing medical records and ensuring information is accurate, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of:

  • Privacy and security of patient data
  • How to edit data and run reports
  • How to maintain EHRs

Since patients can log in and access their own records, it may also be your responsibility to answer their questions and troubleshoot issues.

Trending Jobs in Medical Assisting

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half of medical assistants work in physicians’ offices, but you’ll also find them in medical and surgical hospitals, outpatient care centers, and offices of other health practitioners, including specialists.

Clinical Medical Assisting Jobs

Although you’ll still have some administrative duties, working as a medical assistant in a clinic provides more opportunities to work alongside a physician and use medical tools and technology.

Ophthalmology

Ophthalmic medical assistants conduct eye tests, help with the use and care of contact lenses, collect patient medical histories, and assist with minor surgery.

Podiatry

Podiatric medical assistants make casts for feet, develop X-rays, and assist with podiatric surgery. You’ll need to have strong knowledge of foot anatomy and be comfortable working with patients who may be in pain. Medical assistants interested in sports medicine often find podiatry to be a great steppingstone.

OB-GYN

In this role, you’ll help physicians with exams and provide guidance and education to pregnant women. OB-GYN medical assistants should be well-versed in issues such as menopause, HPV, and female anatomy.

Chiropractic

If you’re interested in a natural approach to medicine, working as a chiropractic medical assistant could be a good fit. You’ll help a chiropractor treat patients using a number of methods, including hot and cold therapies.

Administrative Medical Assisting Jobs

Organized, detail-oriented medical assistants thrive in an administrative setting. If you choose to specialize in the non-clinical side of medical assisting, you may spend more time as a medical biller and coder or as an administrative assistant.

As a medical biller and coder, you’ll analyze records, keep track of patient data, determine codes for insurance billing, and work closely with physicians to ensure accuracy.

Organized, detail-oriented medical assistants thrive in an administrative setting.

Administrative medical assistants schedule appointments, fill out insurance forms, and record patient information. They typically work closely with healthcare administrators crafting documents, taking meeting notes, and completing other office tasks.

As you begin your search for a medical assistant school, you’ll find that a strong curriculum will cover both administrative and clinical tasks. Upon graduating, you should be comfortable working in both settings, although you’ll likely need on-the-job training for a specialized medical office.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the median annual pay for medical assistants is $37,190. The highest 10 percent earned more than $48,170. Your salary can depend on many factors, including your experience and where you work.

Since primary care—where most medical assistants work—is growing, the job outlook for medical assistants is strong. The BLS predicts employment to grow 16 percent through 2031, which is much faster than average for all jobs.

hana larock

Written and reported by:
Hana LaRock
Contributing writer