All About Medical Assisting: Education, Career Paths & Certification

There’s rarely a dull moment when you work as a medical assistant. Variety is a fact of life; the role involves a combination of administrative and clinical duties. You can expect a typical day to provide challenge, but plenty of reward.

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 Manage medical records, billing and coding
Take vital signs Record medical history
Draw blood Administer medication under doctor’s supervision
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.

Here’s what else you can expect at work, according to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET).


of medical assistants said they had constant contact with others.


said team work was extremely important.


said it was extremely important to be exact or accurate.


said they talk on the phone every day.

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.

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


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)
  • 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 aidMedical law and ethics
AnatomyComputer applications
Patient relationsMedical billing and coding

In addition to classroom learning, medical assistant schools typically require their students to 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.


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

Technology and Trends in Medical Assisting


As healthcare trends emerge and technology evolves, it’s an exciting time to be a medical assistant. Since the role requires both clinical and administrative tasks, medical assistants are exposed to the latest in office technology as well as innovative tools to treat patients.

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.


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 Ophthalmologyoffers voluntary professional certification.


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.


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.


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 Assistant 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.

Related Career Paths


Medical assisting school prepares you to do a plethora of different tasks. Your versatile skill set means you’ll be able to cross into related career paths if you choose. Here are a few options:

Medical records and health information technicians document patient information, assign clinical codes for insurance, organize data and ensure patient records are accurate and complete.

Average annual salary: $46,590Job outlook: 8% (faster than average)

Dental assistants do many of the same tasks as a medical assistant, but work with dental instruments. Depending on the state, some dental assistants have added responsibilities such as fluoride and sealant application.

Average annual salary: $41,170Job outlook: 7% (faster than average)

Phlebotomists draw blood from patients for testing and donations. They interact closely with people, often working to alleviate nervousness in patients. They assemble and organize needles, test tubes and blood vials.

Average Annual Salary: $36,480Job Outlook: 17% (much faster than average)

Medical Assistant Salaries

Curious what you can earn as a medical assistant? It’s a common question, especially as you prepare to enroll in an education program. Here’s the answer:

The average annual salary for medical assistants is $35,720, and the top 10% earned more than $48,720, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Occupational Employment Statistics.

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

Healthcare OccupationMedian Salary
Dental Assistants$41,170
Nursing Assistants and Orderlies$30,720
Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides$61,880
Medical Records and Health Information Technicians$46,590

There are many factors that affect how much a medical assistant can make, such as geographic location and work environment. Medical assistants in some cities earn more because the cost of living may be higher, for example. According to the BLS, physicians’ offices employ the most medical assistants in the U.S. and typically pay a slightly higher wage.

Medical Assistant Job Growth

Job Growth Through



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.

Medical Assistant 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.

Certification TitleCertifying Agency
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)American Medical Technologists (AMT)
Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)National Healthcareer Association
Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)National Healthcareer Association
National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)National Center for Competency Testing

Each exam is different, but you can expect to be tested on a number of core topics including:

Medical TerminologyBasic First Aid
InsurancePatient Preparation
Medical Ethics

 Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and Occupational Outlook Handbook.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

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