From doctor’s offices to clinics to hospitals, medical assistants provide backbone support for the delivery of medical care while ensuring that offices and clinics run smoothly. For those interested in this career field, the following guide will outline the responsibilities of a medical assistant, the education and training required to become one, potential career paths, and earnings and employment potential. Take the first step toward entering this career by learning more about the options.
What Does a Medical Assistant Do?
Medical Assistant Basics
Medical assistants are allied health professionals who perform administrative and basic clinical tasks to support physicians and similar healthcare professionals. With their dual skill set, they provide foundational support in medical offices, clinics and hospitals.
Medical Assistant In-Depth
Medical assistants have two primary roles. One is to provide clinical support to doctors and physicians. This typically includes doing routine medical tasks, such as taking patients’ vital signs, recording their medical histories, administering drugs, prepping exam rooms, assisting during basic exams, drawing blood, and removing sutures. This clinical support is done under the direct supervision of a doctor or other medical professional. Medical assistants also act as patient liaisons, ensuring that patients feel comfortable at all times and explaining the uses of medications or physicians’ instructions to patients and their loved ones. The second primary role is to provide administrative support by filling out paperwork, managing correspondence and billing, updating patient records, answering phone calls and scheduling medical appointments.
There are no formal educational requirements to become a medical assistant, although a high school diploma is usually needed. Most medical assistants possess a postsecondary certificate or diploma, which can be obtained from a vocational school or community college.
Medical assistants do not need a license or certification. However, being certified can improve job prospects, as it verifies that one has acquired essential skills and knowledge.
Steps to Becoming a Medical Assistant
Step 1: Get the necessary education
A medical assistant must obtain the requisite education before moving into an entry-level job. Though the bare minimum is a high school diploma or equivalent, medical assistants who earn a degree or certification through a postsecondary program dedicated to medical assisting might find it easier to obtain employment.
There are many accredited postsecondary medical assisting programs. Most are offered at community colleges and vocational schools, and award a certificate, diploma or associate degree upon completion. A diploma or certificate can usually be obtained in a year or so, while an associate degree can be earned in about two years. The longer track of the associate degree allows for more advanced medical training and can be used as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree.
Medical assistants can also choose to specialize, as some schools offer certificates in either clinical or administrative assisting. The clinical certificate provides extra training and education for “back office” medical assisting work such as collecting medical specimens, measuring patients’ vital signs, and doing laboratory testing. The administrative certificate is designed to train medical assistants who will work predominately in the front office, performing administrative and billing tasks.
Accreditation is an important to any program, as most employers will only hire medical assistants who have graduated from an accredited program. There are two accreditation organizations for medical assisting: the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools and the Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.
Step 2: Build experience
Real-world experience is crucial to becoming a good medical assistant. Depending on the program, some experience can be obtained while in school, since many medical assisting programs require hands-on experience at a medical office, clinic or hospital in order to graduate. During these rotations, medical assisting students will help medical personnel with collecting samples for testing, measuring vital signs, administering medical tests, managing the front desk, and taking part in other administrative duties.
Step 3: Earn certification
In some states, medical assistants must be certified in order to work in a medical office. Even in states that do not require it, many employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants. By becoming certified, medical assistants can show that they have gained a minimum amount of medical assisting knowledge. Below is a list of some of the available certifications and who offers them:
- The National Healthcare Association offers the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant and the Certified Medical Administrative Assistant certifications.
- The American Association of Medical Assistants offers the Certified Medical Assistant certification.
- American Medical Technologists offers the Registered Medical Assistant certification.
- The National Center of Competency Testing offers the National Certified Medical Assistant certification.
Requirements vary depending upon the organization, but generally speaking, receiving a certification requires graduating from an accredited program and passing an examination.
FAQs on Becoming a Medical Assistant
How do you become a medical assistant? Most employers seek medical assistants who have graduated from an accredited medical assistant program. You can complete one of these programs at a vocational school or community college.
How much does a medical assistant make? Medical assistant salaries typically range from around $30,000 to $41,000 a year. The average salary for a medical assistant is $36,930, according to the BLS.
How long does it take to become a medical assistant? An accredited medical assistant program takes about a year to complete
How much does it cost to become a medical assistant? Medical assistant programs range in price from about $2,000 to $15,000.
Are there medical assistant programs online? Yes, you can find accredited medical assistant programs online. However, you will most likely have to also complete a practicum, or field work, to graduate.
Become a Successful Medical Assistant: Skills, Tools, and Technology
Medical Assistant Skills
An aspiring medical assistant must possess a number of skills in order to be successful. Some of these include:
Great communication: Medical assistants are often on the front lines of medical care, interacting directly with patients. From asking the right questions about a patient’s needs to accurately explaining how to properly measure a medication dosage, medical assistants need to be able to effectively communicate.
Attention to detail: The wide range of job duties entrusted to medical assistants translates to many potential opportunities for mistakes. Checking the wrong box when taking a patient’s medical history could have serious consequences later. Improper processing of insurance, billing or scheduling documents can mean bills don’t get paid and patients make wasted trips to the office. Medical assistants must pay attention to details, and double-check their work.
Technical skills: While working in the front office, medical assistants need excellent computer and technology skills in order to handle largely computerized administrative tasks. In the back office, they’ll need to properly utilize medical instruments and equipment when taking vital signs or administering medication.
Ability to Multitask: Most medical assistants are assigned a variety of administrative and clinical tasks, and need to be able to handle either—or both—on a moment’s notice. For example, a medical assistant may take a patient’s vital signs, give an injection, and schedule an appointment over the course of just a few minutes. Being able to transition between tasks smoothly is necessary for the safe and effective running of a medical facility.
Medical assistants have a full range of certifications available to them. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) recognizes the following medical assisting certifications:
- The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) offers the Certified Medical Assistant certification. Only those previously certified as a Certified Medical Assistant, or who have graduated from an accredited medical assisting program, are eligible to sit for the exam.
- The American Medical Technologists (AMT) offers the Registered Medical Assistant certification. Graduates from an accredited program, and those with extensive experience in practicing or teaching medical assisting, are eligible to take the exam.
- The National Healthcareer Association (NHA) offers both the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant and the Certified Medical Administrative Assistant certifications. To be eligible to take either exam, applicants must have a high school diploma or GED and either: have completed a medical assisting program or have at least one year of work experience in a relevant medical assisting field.
- The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) offers the National Certified Medical Assistant certification. Exam candidates must be graduates or current students in a medical assisting program, received medical assisting training during U.S. military service, or have at least two years of medical assisting experience.
Tools and Technology for Medical Assistants
Medical assistants must be proficient with a wide variety of technology and equipment. On the administrative end, they must know how to use bookkeeping, billing, scheduling and word processing software, as well as specialized software designed for use in medical offices. These include programs for electronic health records and patient management, and are especially important since electronic medical records are now required under the Affordable Care Act.
On the clinical side, medical assistants will need to know how to use various types of medical equipment, of which even the most basic—such as thermometers or blood pressure cuffs—are now electronic. Other equipment might include scales, hypodermic needles, autoclaves, blood glucose monitors, and centrifuges.
Career Trends in Medical Assisting
The demand for healthcare in the United States is rising, and with that comes the need for medical assistants. The aging population will require more medical care in years to come, and the Affordable Care Act makes access to medical care—especially preventive care—much easier to obtain and often more affordable. With more patients seeking preventive and routine medical care, doctor’s offices will need a support staff to handle the increase in both clinical and administrative duties.
Phlebotomist: Phlebotomists are skilled medical professionals who specialize in drawing blood for various medical and diagnostic purposes Job growth is projected to be 27% between 2012 and 2022.
Nursing assistant: Nursing assistants directly interact with patients as they perform daily tasks such as serving food, cleaning and bathing patients, assisting them with using the bathroom, and sometimes taking vital signs. Job growth is expected to be 21% between 2012 and 2022.
Home health aide: Home health aides assist patients who are physically or mentally challenged, usually from illness or disability; they work in the patient’s own home. In addition to helping patients take medications and use medical equipment, home health aides sometimes assist with household chores and make logistical decisions regarding doctor’s visits and the like. Job growth from 2012 to 2022 is anticipated to be 48%.
Pharmacy technician: Pharmacy technicians work closely with pharmacists to fill prescription medications. They might work in a medical facility or retail pharmacy. Job growth is projected to be 20% from 2012 to 2022.
Health information technician: Health information technicians manage healthcare and patient data for insurance, billing, research, and treatment purposes. Job growth is expected to be 20% between 2012 and 2022.
Dental assistant: Dental assistants help dentists and/or dental hygienists in providing dental care. This can include taking X-rays, sterilizing instruments, and maintaining dental records. Dental assistant jobs are expected to grow 25% from 2012 to 2022.
Pharmacy Technician 2014 Median Salary: $29,810
Without pharmacy technicians, pharmacists would be unable to handle the volume of prescriptions ordered on a daily basis. Pharmacy technicians perform an array of tasks; this includes filling prescriptions, although a pharmacist will oversee the technician to ensure the prescription is properly filled and the patient can take the medication with no unintended consequences.Becoming a pharmacy technician generally requires on-the-job training, graduation from a pharmacy technology postsecondary program, taking a license examination and passing a criminal background check.
Nursing Assistant 2014 Median salary: $25,100
Nursing assistants work directly with patients to provide daily living care, such as assistance with eating, bathing and getting dressed. They might also take a patient’s vital signs and dispense medications. Because of the close nature of care provided, nursing assistants have ample opportunity to get to know their patients very well. Most nursing assistants work in nursing homes and hospitals.Becoming a nursing assisting requires completing a state-approved nurse assistant program. Licensure will then be needed, with each state having its own licensing requirements.
Dental Assistant 2014 Median salary: $35,390
The job duties of dental assistants can include making casts of patients’ teeth, applying sealant or fluoride treatment, and doing administrative tasks such as patient and insurance billing. Dental assistants often work directly with patients during the preliminary stages of treatment.In order to be a dental assistant, most states require certification, which in turn requires completion of an accredited dental assisting program. Depending on the type of program, education can take one to two years.
Medical Assistant Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook
Medical assisting is expected to grow 29 percent in the United States between 2012 and 2022. Short-term growth is expected to be substantial as well, with some states seeing particularly high levels of growth. Arizona and Texas, for example, are anticipated to have more than a nine percent increase in medical assistants by 2016.
This job growth is expected due in part to the higher demand for medical care, especially routine and preventive care provided in doctor’s offices and clinics, which in turn is being driven by an aging population. In 2013, people 65 and older constituted about 14 percent of the U.S. population. By 2040, that demographic is expected to constitute over 21 percent of people in the U.S.
Another factor contributing to job growth is the increased access to medical insurance due to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Since the ACA became law in 2010, the number of insured Americans (who previously had no insurance) has risen by 16.4 million.
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