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All About Medical Assisting: Education, Career Paths & Certification

Your guide to medical assistant programs, certification and careers.

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Home » Medical Assisting

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. As an in-demand occupation, medical assisting has many opportunities for those interested in the medical field and the expansive scope of healthcare.

Medical assistants are needed 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 history
  • 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.

A day-in-the-life of a medical assistant might look like this:

Before Patients Arrive:

Organization is the first order of business when you arrive in the morning. You will review the day’s schedule with the physician, complete any necessary paperwork and organize patient charts. It’s also your job to prepare any examination rooms and refill supplies.

You’ll also be responsible for checking phone messages and emails. Before patients arrive, medical assistants typically complete any administrative needs, such as sending a fax or email, for the doctors and nurses.

Patients Arrive:

The majority of your day will be spent interacting with patients. You’ll greet them, enter any new information into their medical records, prepare them for their exam and schedule appointments.

Most medical facilities now correspond with patients using email or an online portal so you’ll also be tasked with explaining test results and setting up appointments using these formats.

After each patient leaves, you’ll clean the exam room, restock supplies and bring any specimens to the lab.

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’s a list of some of the possibilities:

  • Starting an IV and administering IV medication
  • Helping with clinical trials
  • Acting as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) compliance officer
  • Managing and negotiating equipment and supply contracts
  • Conducting some lab testing
  • Creating fee schedules

With so many different responsibilities, medical assistants need to work well under pressure, communicate effectively and have good judgment. Although the workload will keep you busy, remember you’re part of a team. Fellow colleagues and patients will depend on you.

End of the Day:

You’ll wrap up any loose ends such as returning phone calls, completing paperwork and managing prescription refills. Medical assistants are also responsible for cleaning the exam rooms and sterilizing equipment.

Follow These Steps

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. In order to enroll in medical assistant school, you’ll need a high school diploma or GED.

  • Step 1 Enroll in a School
    As you begin your search for the right school, be sure it’s accredited by one of the following accrediting agencies. Without accreditation, you won’t be able to take professional certification exams: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

    Medical assistant programs offer the choice of either certificates or associate’s 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 have plans to pursue more education in the future, an associate’s 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’s degree takes about two years and provides you with both 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, record-keeping, patient relations, medical billing and coding.
  • Step 2 Complete an Externship
    An externship is a way to get clinical experience before you enter the working world. It allows you put your classroom learning to the test.

    During an externship, you’ll work with professional medical assistants and get hands-on experience in a real-life clinical setting. It’s a time to ask questions, develop skills and make connections in the field. While hearing anecdotes in the classroom about difficult patients or challenging tasks may seem like enough training, only an externship will give you the chance to experience it first-hand. In most cases, your school will set you up with a practical experience at a local clinic or medical facility.
  • Step 3 Get Certified
    Technically, you don’t need to be certified to work as a medical assistant, but many employers prefer it. No matter which certification you earn (there are five to choose from), you will be required to pass an exam. You’ll be tested on a wide range of topics related to medical assisting and earning your credentials tells employers you are knowledgeable about the field.

    Here’s a look at the different examination formats:
    Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) exam: 210 multiple-choice questions
    Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) exam: 200 multiple-choice questions
    Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) exam: 200 multiple-choice questions
    Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) exam: 100 multiple-choice questions
    National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) exam: 150-multiple choice questions

Online Medical Assistant Programs

Ideal for adults juggling family and work obligations, online medical assisting programs free you from the hassle of commuting to campus. You’ll log in to listen to lectures (either at your convenience, or at set times), stream videos, download lectures and slideshows, and more. You’ll also engage with the instructor and other students via an online forum.

Technology and Trends

Medical assisting requires technology savvy as well, which is good for those who are interested in technology as a whole. Consider your desire to work with software and specialized medical devices on a daily basis. If you’re comfortable with the idea of relying on electronic tools in your job, medical assisting may be the right choice for you. You’ll have the opportunity to work with needles, nebulizers, scope sets, and spirometers, among other tools. As for computers, you’ll need to master email, medical and office suite software.

One of the biggest changes to healthcare has been the implementation of Electronic Health Records (EHRs). They are one of the most important pieces of technology medical assistants will work with in the near future.

They contain a patient’s medical history, list of medications, treatment plans, lab results, allergies, and other pertinent health information.  Since all the data is stored in one place, any and all providers related to a patient’s care can access it from anywhere.

EHRs are still being adopted by healthcare facilities which means medical assistants play a big role in inputting information, learning how it works and finding ways to help providers make better decisions about a patient’s care.

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

  • Privacy and security of patient data
  • Benefits and drawbacks of EHRs
  • How to edit data and run reports
  • How to maintain EHRs
  • Differences between EMRs (Electronic Medical Records) and EHRs

Since patients can log in and access their own records, you may also find part of your job includes answering questions or troubleshooting.

Hot 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 medical assistants 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, clinical medical assistant jobs provide 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 medical history 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 podiatry 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 stepping stone.

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 can provide a good opportunity. 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 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.

Administrative medical assistants may also 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 centers, salary may differ between industries. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual wage for medical assistants in 2019 was $35,720. The highest 10% earned more than $48,720.

Medical Assistant Average Salary

$35,720

annual salary

19%

job growth

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

Compare Healthcare Occupations

Healthcare Career

  • Dental Assistants
  • Nursing Assistants and Orderlies
  • Occupational Therapy Assistants
  • Medical Records and Health Information Technicians

Average Annual Salary

  • $41,170
  • $30,720
  • $61,880
  • $46,590

Job Outlook

Healthcare is a field where qualified staff will always be needed. Since the primary care sector—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.

Other factors are expected to contribute to this growth. The Affordable Care Act has given more people access to health insurance. This means medical facilities will see an uptick in patients and more staff will be needed to address these increases.

In addition to this, baby boomers are aging. People are living longer and physicians will work to provide preventative services to this population. Medical assistants will be needed to handle the additional tasks.

Finally, electronic health records (EHRs) are changing 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 five different medical assistant certifications available, it’s a good idea to research healthcare organizations in your area. Do they prefer a specific credential?

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