Medical assistants are responsible for both administrative and clinical duties in physician's offices, hospitals, and other health care facilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these health care professionals help to check vital signs, schedule patient appointments and enter patient information into Electronic Health Records (EHRs), among other duties. Because the health care industry is necessitating more widespread use of EHRs for a greater number of patients, medical assistants may see good job prospects, according to the BLS.
Medical Assistant Specializations
At a medical assistant school, students learn how to perform both administrative and clinical tasks. However, after graduation, professionals in the field may go on to specialize in one of the following areas.
- Administrative medical assistants focus on tasks that don't involve direct patient care. They may answer the phone, schedule appointments and update patient medical records.
- Clinical medical assistants have a hands-on job that can include preparing patients for x-rays, sterilizing medical instruments and performing basic laboratory tests. State laws can affect what does a medical assistant do in this specialization.
- Specialized medical assistants work for health care specialists. They may be employed by ophthalmologists, podiatrists or other medical practices that focus on a specific type of care.
How to Become a Medical Assistant
While everyone's career path can be different, the following steps are often followed by medical assistants:
- Earn a high school diploma.
- Enroll in a medical assistant school. Some employers may provide on-the-job training to high school graduates, but most are looking for applicants with a medical assistant associate degree or certificate.
- Get certified. There are a number of online medical assistant certification programs that can help you demonstrate your expertise in the field.
As part of your education, you'll need to become familiar with the following subjects:
- Medical Terminology
Medical assistant schools generally offer two levels of education.
- Certificate/Diploma: These short term programs can be completed in less than a year and provide the foundation of the skills and knowledge needed to work as a medical assistant. Students will learn everything from anatomy basics to how to administer injections.
- Associate Degree: A medical assistant associate degree traditionally takes two years to complete, but some accelerated programs can be finished in as little as 16 months. An associate degree will cover the same fundamentals as a diploma or certificate but may provide added instruction in general education topics. An associate degree can be a good choice for anyone who thinks they may want to someday earn a bachelor's degree.
Medical Assistant Schools
Community colleges and technical schools offer medical assistant programs at both levels. Online medical assistant schools are also available, and these can make it easy for busy adults to finish their education while working or raising a family. Medical assistant online schools may use a variety of digital resources such as discussion forums, e-textbooks and multi-media presentations to teach lessons. Students can often log-in at whatever time is convenient for them to review course material.
Certification for Medical Assistants
Upon completion of an associate degree, certificate or diploma program, students may choose to pursue professional certification. Although there are no federal requirements for certification, potential employers may require graduates of medical assistant programs to hold one or more certifications for employment. The following are some examples.
- Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants
- Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association
Each certification has its own set of requirements, including education, clinical hours and examination. Individuals interested in certification after graduation should contact each certifying organization to receive an up-to-date list of certification requirements.
Completing online medical assistant certification programs is one way to advance a career. Employers may be seeking workers who have a specific certification or specialty. Other workers in the field choose to advance their career by going back to school to become nurses or physician assistants.
Program Costs and Financial Aid
Skills and Qualities for Medical Assistants
It takes more than book smarts to be successful in this field. Good medical assistants excel because they have the following skills and abilities.
- Active Listening: Medical assistants are often responsible for meeting with patients at the start of a visit. They must be able to listen carefully to patient concerns and ask appropriate questions so they can relay accurate information to a physician or other health care professional.
- Service Orientation: If you want to be a medical assistant, you need to love helping others. Having a service orientation means actively looking for ways you can be of assistance.
- Active Learning: Medicine is an evolving field, and medical assistants need to be able to learn and adapt as needed.
- Oral Expression: Medical assistants may need to answer questions or offer instruction to patients and being able to communicate clearly and effectively is essential to the job.
- Near Vision: A medical assistant may need to type data into electronic health records or read displays when collecting vital signs. Both require clear vision.
Career Outlook and Salary Information for Medical Assistants
The future appears bright for workers in this field, but medical assistant salary can vary depending on a person's education, experience and certification. However, you can use the national numbers below as a guideline for what to expect.
Likewise, job opportunities for medical assistants may depend on several factors. Those who live near major medical facilities or hospital systems may have the best prospects. The chart below shows national expectations for the occupation's growth.
Projected Job Growth
Professional Resources for Medical Assistants
There are several organizations devoted to promoting and assisting the medical assistant profession. They include the following.
- American Association of Medical Assistants - The AAMA is the only association dedicated exclusively to medical assistants. It was founded in 1956 and offers certification, continuing education and other resources to professionals in the field.
- American Registry of Medical Assistants - The ARMA is a private, credentialing organization for medical assistants.
- American Medical Technologists - AMT offers certifications for a number of health care professionals, including medical assistants.