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All About Medical Assisting: Education, Career Paths, and Certification

Your guide to medical assistant programs and careers.

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Home » Medical Assisting

Starting your medical assistant education may begin 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 taking the steps to make that dream a reality. As an in-demand occupation, medical assisting may hold opportunities for those interested in the medical field and the expansive scope of healthcare.

Medical assistants may be employed in all types of facilities, and you’ll be an important part of a healthcare team. You’ll interact with everyone from patients to doctors to pharmacists. Here’s how to become a medical assistant and a spotlight on what they do.

What Do Medical Assistants Do?

The role of a medical assistant is multi-faceted. You’ll be responsible for using a wide range of tools and technology while interacting with all types of people.

Your tasks may be different if you work in a specialized area of medicine, but here’s a list of the main duties you’ll be expected to complete.

Main Tasks of a Medical Assistant

  • Schedule appointments
  • Take vital signs
  • Manage medical records, billing, and coding
  • Record medical histories
  • Draw blood
  • Administer medication
  • Prepare examination rooms
  • Prepare patients for appointments
  • Arrange for hospital admission
  • Perform diagnostic tests
  • Sterilize equipment

In addition to email and computer software, you’ll need to know how to use specific medical equipment, including needles, blood pressure units, nebulizers, and ophthalmoscopes.

As a medical assistant, you’ll spend the majority of your time interacting with patients. But as you gain more experience and skills, you may find that you’ll be tasked with more advanced responsibilities. The extent of what you’re allowed to do will depend on state regulations, but here are some of the possibilities:

  • Start an IV and administer IV medication
  • Conduct some lab tests
  • Create fee schedules

With so many different responsibilities, medical assistants need to work well under pressure, communicate effectively, and have good judgment.

In addition to computer software, you’ll need to know how to use specific medical equipment, including needles, blood pressure units, nebulizers, and ophthalmoscopes.

Follow These 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.

  • Enroll in a School
    As you begin your search for the right school and program, be sure they’re accredited. Without accreditation, you won’t be able to take professional certification exams.

    Medical assistant programs offer the choice of either certificates/diplomas or associate degrees. Your career aspirations should dictate the type of program you choose. For instance, if you’re looking to enter the workforce sooner rather than later, a shorter certificate program may suit you best.

    On the other hand, if you plan to pursue more education in the future, an associate degree will provide you with a solid foundation.

    The main differences between the two types of programs are length and curriculum. Graduating with a medical assistant certificate tells employers you received solid career training and hands-on experience. These programs tend to last between nine and 12 months.

    An associate degree takes about two years and provides you with career training, hands-on experience, and general education courses. Because your education is more extensive, you may have more opportunity 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.
  • Complete an Externship or Internship
    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.

    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.

    During this training, you’ll work with professional medical assistants and get hands-on experience in a clinical setting. It’s a time to ask questions, develop skills, and make connections in the field.

    In most cases, your school will help set you up with an internship at a local clinic or medical facility.
  • Get Certified
    You don’t need to be certified to work as a medical assistant, but many employers prefer it, and a credential tells employers you are knowledgeable in your field. No matter which certification you earn, you’ll be required to pass an exam covering a wide range of topics related to medical assisting.

    There are seven basic certifications; the main ones are Certified Medical Assistant and Registered Medical Assistant.

Online Medical Assistant Programs

Ideal for adults juggling family and work obligations, online medical assisting programs may free you from the hassle of commuting to campus. While you’ll be able to attend lectures online—either watching recorded classes at your convenience or at set times—you’ll need to attend internships in person to get your hands-on experience.

Many online programs make time for you to engage with your instructors and other students online in the classroom or in forums.

Technology and Trends

Medical assisting requires tech savvy, which is good for those who are interested in technology in general. Consider your desire to work with software and specialized medical devices on a daily basis.

If you’re comfortable with the idea of using electronic tools in your job, medical assisting may be the right choice for you. You’ll have the opportunity to work with nebulizers and spirometers, among other tools, and you’ll need to master email and medical and office suite software.

Medical assisting requires technology savvy, which is good for those who are interested in technology in general.

Most hospitals and physicians also use electronic health records (EHRs), which contain patient information such as:

  • Medical history
  • Medications
  • Treatment plans
  • Lab results
  • Allergies

Medical assistants play a big role in entering information into an EHR, learning how a system works, and finding ways to help providers make better decisions about a patient’s care.

Since medical assistants are responsible for managing medical records and ensuring information is accurate, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of the following topics:

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

Hot Jobs in Medical Assisting

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half (57% in fact) 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.

If you dig deeper, you’ll find that medical assistants can specialize in certain areas of medicine.

Clinical Medical Assisting Jobs

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

Ophthalmology

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

Often, ophthalmic medical assistants receive on-the-job training in this field after completing a general medical assisting education program. The Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology offers voluntary professional certification.

Podiatry

Podiatric medical assistants make casts for feet, develop X-rays, and assist with podiatric surgery. In this role, the assistant also conducts pre-treatment exams and uses podiatric tools regularly.

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

Medical assistants who are passionate about women’s health may find a rewarding career in obstetrics/gynecology. 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.

Some employers will require you to have Basic Life Support (BLS) certification.

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 may fill out insurance forms and code patient information, but they’re also responsible for scheduling appointments. 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

If you’re considering becoming a medical assistant, make sure that your income will match your needs and lifestyle. Because medical assistants can work in a variety of health settings, salaries may differ between industries. According the BLS, the median annual pay for medical assistants is $35,850. The highest 10% earned more than $50,580.

Medical Assistants at a Glance

$35,850

Median Annual Salary

19%

Job Growth Through 2029

If you’re still weighing your options and salary is a factor, take a look at similar healthcare careers:

Compare Healthcare Occupations

Healthcare CareerMedian Annual Salary
Dental Assistants$41,180
Nursing Assistants and Orderlies$30,830
Occupational Therapy Assistants$60,950
Medical Records and Health Information Technicians$44,090
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2020

Job Outlook

Healthcare is a field in which qualified staff will always be needed. Since primary care—where most medical assistants work—is growing, the job outlook for this career path looks promising.

The BLS predicts employment to grow 19% through 2029, which is much faster than average for all jobs.

One reason for this growth is that baby boomers are aging. As people live longer and physicians provide preventative services to this population, medical assistants will be needed to handle the additional work.

In addition, electronic health records have changed the medical landscape. Medical assistants who are well-versed in technology and EHR software will be sought after as more information is digitized.

Professional Certification

While not required, medical assistant certification is often preferred by employers and can help demonstrate your commitment to the role.

Since there are seven medical assistant certifications available, it’s a good idea to research healthcare organizations in your area. Do they prefer a specific credential?

While not required, medical assistant certification is often preferred by employers and can help demonstrate your commitment to the role.

To earn your medical assistant certification, you’ll need to pass an exam administered by one of the following organizations. Each organization has eligibility requirements that can range from on-the-job experience to completing a medical assistant education program. All require applicants to pass an exam to gain certification.

  • American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) 
  • American Medical Technologists (AMT) 
  • National Healthcareer Association (NHA)
  • National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)
  • American Medical Certification Association (AMCA)
hana larock

Written and reported by:
Hana LaRock
Contributing writer