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How to Become a Certified Medical Assistant: Programs & Exams

Learn how to become licensed and certified as a medical assistant.

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Home » Medical Assisting » Certification

Why Pursue Medical Assistant Certification?

There is no law requiring medical assistants to be licensed or certified, but most still choose medical assistant certification in order to advance in their career and stay abreast of changes in the field. This may also be due to the fact that many employers require their medical assistants to hold certification, and some states require certification to perform specific job duties, such as performing x-rays or drawing blood.

Medical Assistant Programs

From scheduling appointments to taking vital signs, medical assistants are an integral part of any healthcare facility. While some of the daily tasks may sound easy, there are plenty of complexities to the job and medical assistant programs will provide you with appropriate training.

Medical assistant programs are designed to teach you necessary skills in a short amount of time, resulting in a certificate or diploma. If you want to expand into other areas, say office administration, you may be able to earn an associate’s degree, depending on the school.

A typical curriculum includes medical terminology, medical office management, anatomy and physiology, accounting, and pharmacology.

As healthcare facilities transfer from paper records to Electronic Health Records (EHR), medical assistants need to be well-versed in the new technology. EHRs contain a patient’s medical history, lab results, immunization information, treatment plans and other valuable information. Since the information is stored digitally, the hope is that all types of healthcare providers will be able to access the same information, no matter where they are.

As a medical assistant, it will be your responsibility to input complete information, ensure a patient’s privacy and understand how information can be transferred from one provider to another.

As you look for an education program, be sure the curriculum offers training in healthcare documentation, computer fundamentals and medical records management.

What You’ll Learn About EHRs

  • Advantages and disadvantages to electronic health records
  • How to maintain records and access databases
  • How to use EHR software to edit data and run reports
  • How HIPAA laws play a role

Managing EHRs will be just one part of your job, but as technology advances it will become an even more important task than ever before.

Types of Medical Assistant Programs

Certificate or associate’s degree? Aspiring medical assistants have a couple options when pursuing an education.

Certificate Programs: 9 – 12 months

Certificate programs are designed to be strictly career training; students spend all their time learning how to do the job of a medical assistant. Coursework focuses on the core topics with most programs culminating in an externship. One of the benefits to a certificate program is the short completion time, however, you may find you’ll need more education if you want to move into a new role in the future.

Associate’s Degree: 2 years

Earning an associate’s degree requires more time in school, but can often provide a bigger payoff in the long run. While you’ll still take all of the same medical assisting courses as a certificate-seeking student, you’ll also be required to complete general education courses, such as business math and English composition. You’ll also have the opportunity to take more in-depth medical courses.

Why devote more time to school? As a medical assistant with an associate’s degree, you may have more advancement opportunities. With a more well-rounded education, you may be eligible for better pay. Another perk? If you decide to pursue a higher degree in the future, an associate’s provides a solid starting point.

Medical Assistant Schools

In order to be eligible for medical assistant certification, you must first graduate from a medical assistant training program that is accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP).

Medical assistants come in several forms—administrative and clinical—but most schools will teach you both set of skills. Here’s a look at the differences between the two types:


Medical assistants with an administrative focus spend most of their time scheduling appointments, stocking supplies and equipment and completing paperwork and insurance forms.


A clinical medical assistant may conduct basic lab tests, sterilize equipment and prepare patients for x-rays. Their role may also include drawing blood or removing stitches, depending on a particular state’s regulations.

If you work in a specific type of setting, such as optometry, podiatry or ophthalmology, your duties will be more specialized. For example, a podiatric medical assistant would do the tasks listed above in addition to making casts, developing x-rays and assisting podiatrists in surgery.

Once you’ve learned the skills in the classroom, it’s time to get out in the field. Medical assistant schools typically set students up with an externship after they complete their coursework. This means you’ll participate in a supervised clinical experience at a local facility and gain hands-on training.

What to Look for in a Medical Assistant School?

With so many medical assistant schools out there, how do you know which one to choose? Consider these five factors:

  • Length: A certificate program takes between 9 months and a year. The short timeframe allows you to enter the workforce sooner.
  • Experience: How many hours of hands-on experience will you get?
  • Exam preparation: Does the program provide you with enough training and resources to pass a certification exam?
  • Curriculum: Even if you plan to specialize as an administrative or clinical medical assistant, does the program provide you with the knowledge to do both?
  • Class schedule: Many aspiring medical assistants work while going to school. Does the class schedule fit with your needs?

Online Medical Assistant Certification

Looking for flexibility while you attend school? You’re not alone which is why many schools now offer online medical assistant certification.

You can expect a similar course load as an on-campus program, including an externship at a local clinic. You’ll note the biggest difference between an online and on-campus program is how you manage your schedule.

An online medical assistant certification program will save you the hassle of getting to campus and you’ll be able to complete coursework when it’s convenient for you, although you’ll still have deadlines. This format often works well for students who are focused, organized and have a designated study area in their home.

Many online programs also offer multiple start dates throughout the year.

There is one caveat: Not all states permit online medical assistant certification. Check with your licensing board before enrolling in a program.

Choose the Certification That’s Right for You

Take stock of your field, specialty and current goals. There are several different organizations offering medical assistant certification. Here are two of the most common types of medical assistant certifications, and the organizations that grant them, explained in greater detail.

Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)

The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) awards the Certified Medical Assistant credential. You must renew the CMA credential every 5 years. The AAMA Certification/Recertification Examination is offered year-round. To schedule your test, you’ll make an appointment to take the test and pay an enrollment fee.

If you plan to become a CMA, you need to take the exam within 12 months of graduating (or no more than 30 days before completing your formal education and practicum). You won’t need to provide any documentation; your program’s director will verify you completed the program in order for you to receive your certification.

Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)

The American Medical Technologists (AMT) is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) to award the RMA credential as well as certifications for several other health care careers. In order to maintain your registered medical assistant credential, you will need to pay a nominal annual fee. You’ll also need to complete a specific number of continuing education hours every 3 years.

Before you can take the RMA exam, you need to meet certain eligibility criteria which can be done in one of five ways (education, military, work experience, instructor or other recognized exam).

Many registered medical assistants complete an education program before taking the exam. If you plan to take this route, you’ll need to be educated within the last four years at an accredited school. To be eligible, your program must have 720 clock hours of instruction, including 160 clock hours of externship.

Other Medical Assistant Certifications

RMA and CMA certifications are the most well-known credentials in the industry, but the National Commission for Certifying Agencies accredits three other certifications.

Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association

Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association

National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing

All three certifications require you to pass an exam after meeting certain eligibility requirements.

Medical Assistant Certification Test

Before you can prepare for a medical assistant certification test, you need to decide which organization you’ll earn your credentials from.

It’s a good idea to research what employers in your area look for. While all certifications are nationally-recognized, some states or specific organizations may prefer a certain credential over another. Here’s a look at the two most popular certification tests.

AAMA Certification Exam

AAMA states their exam content is based on “scientifically-grounded occupational analysis.” It’s broken into three main sections—general, administrative and clinical. Below you’ll find a brief outline of some of the topics you can expect to be tested on:

ProfessionalismMedical Law/Regulatory Guidelines
Medical EthicsMedical Terminology
Patient AdvocacyPractice Finances
Patient PreparationNutrition
Basic First Aid

The complete outline with details can be found on AAMA’s site. To apply for the exam, submit all required documentation and a $125 fee.

AMT Certification Exam

The AMT exam is also divided into three sections—general medical assisting knowledge, administrative medical assisting and clinical medical assisting. While many of the topics are the same as the AAMA exam, you can also expect questions related to:

Human relationsInsurance
Minor surgeryPhysical examinations

To apply to take the exam, you’ll need to pay a $100 fee, submit an application and meet eligibility requirements.

Medical Assistant Certification Practice Test

A medical assistant certification practice test is one of the best ways to prepare for an exam. Not only does it provide a refresher on medical assistant topics, but you can familiarize yourself with the format of the exam and the way questions are asked.

If you tend to get nervous or anxious during an exam, a medical assistant certification practice test is the perfect antidote.

AMT offers an online practice test, which offers a timing feature and explanations for questions that are answered incorrectly. After purchasing the exam, you’ll be able to take the practice test twice within a 90-day period.

The AAMA does not offer a practice exam, but provides test-takers with a content outline so you can familiarize yourself with the topics. AAMA also includes a list of medical terminology and anatomy and physiology questions to test your knowledge.

Medical Assistant Salary

As an entry-level profession, the average annual medical assistant salary is $35,720, but top earners are known to earn more than that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many factors—even the work environment—can affect how much you earn as a medical assistant. Physicians’ offices, which employ the most medical assistants in the U.S., typically pay higher salaries. And, you may earn slightly more in general medical and surgical hospitals.

As for medical assistant careers, the future looks promising. The BLS predicts a 19% job growth through 2029, which the BLS says is much faster than average. Healthcare facilities will see an increase in patients as people live longer and preventative services improve. Digitized medical records and advanced technology will also factor into faster-than-average job growth.

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

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