In order to work in medical assisting, you’ll generally need one to two years of education. And though a certificate from a medical assistant program isn’t always required, most employers will expect their employees to have attended such a program and also be certified.
In this Article
Choose a Program
Most medical assistant programs consist of a balance of administrative and clinical education. There are many programs and schools to choose from, depending on finances and how quickly you want to finish school.
Certificate programs usually take a year, but there are programs that are as short as a few months. Another route to a career in medical assisting is earning an associate degree.
This chart compares the two pathways.
|Certificate or Diploma||Associate Degree|
|Class Offerings||Physiology and pathology, pharmacology, lab techniques and procedures, first-aid, office practices, medication administration||Human anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, lab techniques, administrative procedures, pharmacology, medication administration|
|Time to Complete||Typically nine months to a year||Typically two years of full-time study|
|Program Comparison||Generally offered at vocational schools, community colleges, or specialty schools. Students usually have a shorter period of clinical training than students pursuing an associate degree.||Typically offered at community colleges and include substantial clinical and administrative education and training.|
Land an Internship or Externship
While most medical assistant programs educate and train students in clinical and administrative skills, some focus more on one side of the profession. Regardless of your program, you’ll get hands-on clinical experience in a healthcare setting.
Clinical experience is crucial because it prepares you to work with patients and colleagues, the core role of a medical assistant. To gain your clinical experience, you may have an internship or an externship.
An internship is work experience offered by an organization for a set period of time. Internships can last for a quarter or a semester or be completed over the summer.
In general, a medical assistant degree or certificate program will help students land a clinical training stint.
An externship is generally the same as an internship but for a shorter period of time. Some are just for a day, while others can be as long as several weeks or a couple of months.
Both types of hands-on training will give you the clinical experience you need for a career as a medical assistant. You can expect to learn:
In general, a medical assistant program will help students land a clinical training stint.
Danielle Sadighi, founder of the American Medical Certification Association (AMCA), says schools have an incentive to help students get an internship. “Schools look to align with the hospitals so that they can feed (program graduates) into doctors’ offices and hospitals,” she says.
Earn a Certification
There are no licenses for medical assistants. Certification is optional, but most medical assistants do earn a credential for two reasons: A credential demonstrates your knowledge and expertise, and most employers expect medical assistants to have one.
There are seven basic certifications to choose from. The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) and the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) are the most common, but the one you pick could depend on where you hope to work. That’s because some medical institutions prefer a particular certification. Many schools also prepare students for a specific certification, so you’ll want to make sure that your school and medical community preferences sync up.
One way to determine which credential might be best for you is to look at job openings in your area to see if a particular certification is repeatedly requested.
After getting some experience, you might decide to specialize and earn a credential in a specific field of medicine.
Here’s a sample of some of the specialties available to medical assistants:
One way to determine which credential might be best for you is to look at job openings in your area to see if a particular certification is popular.
When choosing a medical assisting program, make sure the school and program are both accredited. Schools and programs that are accredited have met the education standards deemed necessary to prepare a person for their career.
There are more reasons to attend an accredited school and program:
The accreditation agencies for medical assisting are:
What to Look for In a School
There are many medical assisting programs to choose from, so what should you look for to make sure you choose the best program for you?
Type of Program
First, decide what kind of program you want to attend—certificate, diploma, or associate degree. Then look at schools. You’ll find medical assisting programs at:
Flexibility and Convenience
Overall, medical assisting programs offer a lot of flexibility and convenience and can be ideal for students who have other responsibilities outside of school. This flexibility applies to classroom and online programs and can include:
Job Placement/Career Counseling
Find out if the schools you are interested in offer job placement or help finding a job. Some schools have relationships with local hospitals, clinics, and physician’s practices.
You can also use your medical assistant program to make connections and network so you’ll have contacts when you graduate.
Online Medical Assisting Programs
There are many online medical assisting programs, and they’re a great option for people who are juggling work or other responsibilities and need a flexible schedule.
But these programs are really hybrids, because you’ll need to show up for hands-on clinical training, whether it’s in a class, or at a local hospital, clinic, or another healthcare setting.
For the online portion of the program, you may have taped lectures that you can view at your convenience, or live lectures and question-and-answer time with your instructors via video conference.
Applying Previous Experience or Education Toward a Program
Sadighi says that in some cases, previous education and experience can count toward a medical assisting education. As an example, she says that a teenager who completes a health sciences program in high school may be able to transfer those credits to a community college and apply anywhere from three to 24 credits toward a medical assisting program.
In general, however, post-secondary medical assisting programs don’t give credit for previous education outside of medical assisting or waive any requirements based on previous experience, Sadighi says.
Paying for School
There are many resources available to help students pay for their education, including:
To apply for federal financial aid or a student loan, you’ll need to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if you’re not interested in applying for aid, your school may still require you to fill out the FAFSA as part of your application.
If you’re not able to cover tuition, your school might have a payment plan. Your school’s admissions department is a good place to start.
While programs differ, here are some expenses you can expect:
Salary Potential and Career Outlook
What can you expect to earn once you land a job?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a medical assistant is $35,850. Many factors can affect your actual salary, including where you live, your experience, and whether you have certifications.
Jobs for medical assistants are expected to grow by 19% through 2029, much faster than the average 4% for all jobs. The nation’s aging population will drive a lot of this demand because it’s living longer.
As a result, the BLS says physicians in group or private practices, clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities need more medical assistants for clinical and administrative work.
Jobs for medical assistants are expected to grow by 19% through 2029, much faster than the average 4% for all jobs.
Advancing Your Career
You can advance your career by specializing as a medical assistant and earning credentials. In fact, the BLS says medical assistants who have a credential and can work with electronic health records (EHRs) may have an edge in the job market.
You can also deepen and expand your skills by stacking credentials. Because the healthcare industry is growing, the role of the medical assistant is expected to expand. It could be a good bet to consider earning credentials outside of your field to demonstrate your versatility to employers.
For instance, a credential in computer technology or interpersonal skills can help you stand out from the competition, and possibly bump up your salary. In time, stacking credentials could lead to new and exciting roles as a medical assistant.