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Guide to Certifications for Medical Assistants

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Home » Medical Assisting » Certification

There are no licenses for medical assistants, and they aren’t required to be certified in most states. However, many employers prefer certified assistants, so there may be one in your future.

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There are five organizations in the U.S. that offer credentials for medical assistants, and some of the credentials are confusingly similar. Medical assisting schools tend to prepare students for a specific credential, usually one that’s preferred by the local medical community.

It’s important to keep in mind that the school you attend and the hospitals and clinics in your area can play a role in which credential you pursue.

Certificate vs Certification

A certificate is awarded by an educational institution, and signifies that a student has satisfactorily completed a given curriculum. Certificate programs can help students prepare for certification exams.
A certification is generally awarded by a trade group after an individual has met certain professional requirements (e.g. earned a specific degree, worked professionally in a given field for a set amount of time, etc.) and passed a certification exam.

In short, a certificate is evidence that someone has completed an educational program, while a certification denotes that someone has met a certain set of professional criteria and/or passed an exam.

Not all programs offered are designed to meet state educator licensing or advancement requirements; however, it may assist candidates in gaining these approvals in their state of residence depending on those requirements. Contact the state board of education in the applicable state(s) for requirements.

Why Certification Matters

Certification offers a number of benefits. The certification letters you add after your name tell others that you have expertise in your field, and this recognition can help you stand out in a pack of candidates, increase your salary, or open doors to other jobs.

“A certification is a third-party validation of skills,” says Danielle Sadighi, who is the founder of the American Medical Certification Association (AMCA) and has worked in medical certification for 28 years.

The validation that comes with being certified could be important to your career. The National Healthcareer Association’s 2020 industry outlook found that in the healthcare industry:

74% of medical assistants are certified

63% of institutions increase pay when an employee earns professional certification

89% require or encourage certification for medical assistants

60% report that newly certified medical assistants are prepared for their job

72% screen medical assistant candidates for certification

How Do You Pick a Certification?

Because schools and certification agencies can be closely aligned, the certification you go for could be dictated by the school you choose. However, Sadighi says some schools do prepare students for multiple certifications, giving them greater choice.

One way to consider certifications is to look at medical assistant jobs in the community where you hope to work. Do employers prefer a specific certification? Or does it look like all certifications are accepted?

Preparing for and Taking a Certification Exam

Most of the organizations that offer medical assistant credentials have practice tests or questions to help you prepare. There are also books and study guides you can buy. Forming a study group with peers also can be an effective way to prep for an exam. One way to consider certifications is to look at medical assistant jobs in the community where you hope to work. Do employers prefer a specific certification?

The medical assistant certification process will differ depending on the certification. Here’s how the process works for someone pursuing Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) certification:

  • Graduate from an accredited medical assisting program or be within 30 days of graduating.
  • Review all exam policies and information; you’ll take the test online.
  • Choose a “start date” for the 90-day period in which you’ll be able to take the test.
  • Apply online or by mail and monitor your email for all correspondence.
  • Schedule your test.
  • Prepare by completing an online testing tutorial and a practice exam.
  • Take the exam, which includes 200 multiple-choice questions in 40-minute segments.
  • Wait for your test scores; if you pass, you’ll receive a digital certification badge.

Types of Medical Assistant Certifications

Here are the seven basic certifications for medical assistants. The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) and the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) are the most common. You can earn one or more of these credentials or pursue a specialty credential.

CertificationCertifying BodyWho It’s Best ForExam Cost
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)American Association of Medical AssistantsMost well-known certification. Apply upon completion of MA program.$700
Medical Assistant Certification (MAC)American Medical Certification AssociationApply upon completion of MA program.$109
Clinical Medical Assistant Certification (CMAC)American Medical Certification AssociationFor clinical and patient side of MA work. Apply upon completion of MA program.$139
Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)American Medical TechnologistsApply after five years of work experience as an MA (military and MA teaching exceptions).$120
National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)National Center for Competency TestingFor clinical side of MA work. Apply after two years of work experience.$90
Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)National Healthcareer AssociationFor clinical side of MA work. Apply upon completion of MA program.$155
Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)National Healthcareer AssociationFor administrative side of MA work. Apply upon completion of MA program.$117

If the cost of an exam is a barrier to earning a certification, find out if you qualify for a test fee waiver. Additionally, if you belong to a professional organization, your test fees may be reduced or covered.

Comparing Clinical Certifications

While some of the certifications are similar, they do differ in some ways. As an example, here’s a comparison of the two clinical certifications for medical assistants.

Clinical Medical Assistant Certification (CMAC)

Certified through the AMCA
The test consists of 200 questions.
Test-takers have 3½ hours to complete the exam. The exam covers:

  • Phlebotomy
  • EKG
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Law and ethics
  • Safety/infection control
  • Medical office/patient care
  • Healthcare systems

Certified Clinical Medical Assistant Certification (CCMA)

Certified through the NHA
The test consists of 180 questions.
Test takers have three hours to complete the exam. The exam covers:

  • Knowledge of basic science
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Clinical patient care
  • Patient care and education
  • Office administration
  • Communication and customer service
  • Medical law and ethics

While the tests are different, they both focus on clinical care and working with patients. If the school you choose prepares clinical medical assistants for one specific test, or if one of the credentials is popular in your area, that likely will be the one you pursue.

If you’re set on a specific credential, make sure to pick a school that will prepare you for it.

How Stackable Credentials Can Give You an Edge

After you’ve earned your medical assisting credential, there are a number of other certifications you can earn to expand your knowledge and skills, stand out even more in your field, and increase your value to your employer. This is called stacking credentials.

Sadighi gives this example of stackable credentials for medical assistants: “If I am not going with a four-year degree or associate, how can I make myself valuable in the marketplace? Stackable credentials. So, if I’m a medical assistant, I might take medical administration and learn more about the front office, or I might take electronic health records, because it’s in my line of education.

“Stackable credentials are highly recommended,” Sadighi says. “I’ve surveyed hospitals across the country, and what stands out is that they want their medical assistants to also have taken essential soft skills,” meaning training in professionalism and interpersonal interaction.

Other specialty certifications medical assistants can earn include:

  • Podiatric Medical Assistant Certification (PMAC)
  • Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA)
  • Chiropractic Assistant Certification (CCCA)
  • Specialty Certified Medical Assistant in Geriatrics (SCMA-G™)

Whether you want to specialize in a specific area of medicine or on the administrative or clinical side of medical assisting, there are credentials to help you drive your career.

hana larock

Written and reported by:
Hana LaRock
Contributing Writer

danielle sadighi

With professional insight from:
Danielle Sadighi
Founder, American Medical Certification Association (AMCA)