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.
In this Article
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
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
If you’re still weighing your options and salary is a factor, take a look at similar healthcare careers:
Compare Healthcare Occupations
Average Annual Salary
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.
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.