How to Become a Medical Assistant


    GUIDE
    January 25, 2021
    Young woman in scrubs working at front desk in hospital

    If you’d like to join the medical field quickly, becoming a medical assistant is a great option.

    Medical assistants can make a real difference in people’s lives. They also have chances to transition into management or into another healthcare position. 

    This guide will help answer your questions on what a medical assistant does and what you need to know to become one.

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    Part One What Is a Medical Assistant?

    Medical assistants are essential members of the healthcare team. They fulfill both administrative tasks and patient care duties, acting as liaisons between patients and the physician or medical staff.

    They can work anywhere from laboratories to college health centers, and they take on responsibilities ranging from answering phones and updating medical records to assisting with physical exams and drawing blood. 

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    Despite the importance of this role, medical assistants do not require extensive education or credentials. To become a medical assistant, you’ll need a high school diploma or a GED. You’ll also need to complete a medical assisting program. (More on those in section four!)

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    Part Two What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

    The roles and duties of a medical assistant will vary depending upon the type of setting they work in. Those who work in specialized environments may get trained for that office’s specific needs. 

    But in most cases, a medical assistant can expect to perform both clinical and administrative tasks ranging from answering the phones and filling out insurance forms to conducting interviews with patients and recording medical histories and symptoms in preparation for their physical exam by the doctor. 

    Medical Assistant Administrative Responsibilities

    1. Answering the phone
    2. Scheduling appointments
    3. Greeting patients
    4. Acting as patient liaisons to schedule hospital admissions and diagnostic tests
    5. Coding and filling out patient insurance forms
    6. Updating patient medical records
    7. Managing billing, bookkeeping and correspondence
    8. Computer data entry 

    Medical Assistant Clinical Responsibilities

    1. Interviewing patients about medical histories and current symptoms
    2. Preparing examination rooms for each patient and cleaning up after
    3. Preparing patients for the physician’s exam
    4. Assisting the physician with the physical exam
    5. Drawing blood (phlebotomy)
    6. Getting vital signs
    7. Administering electrocardiogram examinations
    8. Removing sutures
    9. Changing dressings on wounds
    10. Instructing patients about procedures and treatments
    11. Performing basic laboratory exams
    12. Collecting laboratory specimens and preparing them for analysis
    13. Providing information to patients regarding prescribed diets or medications
    14. Transmitting prescriptions and refills to pharmacies as instructed
    15. Following up with patients after office visits or treatments

    Part Three Medical Assistant Salary

    According to U.S. News & World Report, medical assistants rank second in Best Jobs Without A College Degree. One of the reasons for this is the solid and predictable salaries that these professionals earn.

    In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported their median salary as $34,800 with the potential to make up to almost $50k. Read more about how much you can make as a medical assistant in our 2021 medical assistant salary guide.

    Another reason medical assisting is an excellent job is because it’s in such high demand. The BLS predicts a 23% increase in medical assistant employment over the next 10 years.

    The growth in demand for trained and certified medical assistants is attributed to the aging of the baby boomers and the associated increase in need for medical care.  

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    Part Four How to Become a Medical Assistant 

    In order to become a medical assistant, here's what you need to do:

    Step 1: Get Your High School Diploma or GED

    This is a requirement for medical assistant programs, and some medical assistants enter the field with nothing more than a high school diploma and on-the-job training, though they can't become certified that way.

    Step 2: Enroll in a Medical Assistant Program

    Enroll in a medical assistant program accredited by the CAAHEP or ABHES.

    These programs can be offered both in-person and online and are frequently offered through community colleges and technical schools. Accredited programs will also include hands-on experience which is sometimes called an externship. 

    Step 3: Get Certified

    Within 30 days of completing the training program, students can take the Certified Medical Assistant exam, which is credentialed through the Certifying Board of the American Association of Medical Assistants. 

    According to medical assistant Taylor Brune, "As a medical assistant, it’s important to be certified. I took a national certification exam and every two years, I complete the required credits and retake the test to keep my certification up to date."

    Those who have earned this certification claim the most generous salaries and are assigned positions of greater responsibility. These programs provide students with both clinical and academic training, as well as instruction in the administration of medical offices. 

    Some medical assistants earn registered medical assistant (RNA) certifications instead of CMA certification. American Medical Technologists (AMT) offers the RNA certification. These career paths are nearly identical.

    Part Five Medical Assistant Programs 

    Medical assistant training programs generally take one to two years to complete, depending on whether you earn only a certificate or also complete an associate’s degree program.

    Both types of training programs are available from vocational schools and technical colleges, as well as through online medical assistant programs

    Online Medical Assistant Programs

    If you are interested in becoming a clinical medical assistant, you can enroll in an online or traditional training program. 

    Online coursework offers a lot of advantages, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many choices for online training programs, you’ll have a better chance of finding one that suits your budget and schedule.

    However, many students prefer face-to-face classes, which offer more hands-on experience and more opportunities to build relationships. 

    >>Related: The Ultimate Guide to Medical Assistant Programs 2021

    3 Types of Medical Assistant Programs

    There are three different types of Medical Assistant Programs: certificate, diploma, and Associate’s degree. 

    1. Certificate Program

      Certificates can be earned quickly, usually in under a year. They are generally offered through community colleges.
    2. Diploma Programs

      Many healthcare facilities such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, and labs offer CMA training programs. Coursework is often based on hands-on training. Some medical facilities don’t charge for training when the student agrees to stay employed for a specific period of time.
    3. Associate Degree

      Associate degrees normally take two years to complete when you attend your community college or technical college full-time. Associate degrees include non-medical courses which you could use later toward a bachelor’s degree. Medical assistants who have chosen this path are generally rewarded with higher starting salaries and are viewed as more attractive candidates by hiring managers. 

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    Medical Assistant Program Accreditation

    Make sure your medical assistant training program has been accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), as eligibility for the Certified Medical Assistant Certification Exam requires completion of a program that meets this standard. 

    Medical Assistant Training Courses

    Students who enroll in medical assisting training programs can expect coursework in topics including: 

    1. Anatomy
    2. Physiology
    3. Pathology
    4. Computer applications
    5. Medical terminology
    6. Bookkeeping and accounting
    7. Insurance processing
    8. Coding
    9. Laboratory techniques including drawing blood
    10. Diagnostic procedures
    11. Pharmacology
    12. First aid
    13. Office practices
    14. Patient relations 

    What You'll Learn From a Medical Assistant Program

    Brune shared that her program consisted of classroom lecture credits, clinical and required 200 hours of fieldwork.

    She also stated that "the program style was really beneficial to help me to get on-the-job training and also land a great position right after graduation, 

    • I gained a lot of valuable on-the-job experience while I was still in school
    • I quickly graduated and got my diploma from medical assisting school
    • I was able to apply to private practices and I got a job quickly"

    Part Six A Day in the Life of a Medical Assistant 

    Though every office and job setting is different, most medical assistant jobs have similar responsibilities. At its most basic, the job is patient-facing: you will interact with the patient on the phone, in the waiting room, and in the examination room.

    Here’s what a typical day in the life of a medical assistant may look like:

    1. Medical assistants often begin their day by recording and relaying messages that have been left on the office’s voice mail system or sent via email.
    2. Then they will move on to pulling charts for all the patients expected in the office that day.
    3. As patients arrive for their appointments, they may greet them, provide them with the paperwork that needs to be completed, escort them back to examination rooms and then record medical histories for new patients and update health records for existing patients.
    4. Their patient interaction may also include taking and recording vital signs, blood pressure and weight, collecting and processing laboratory samples and ordering prescriptions and diagnostic tests. 
    5. Throughout the day, the medical assistant may be called on to enter data into computers, order supplies, and make follow-up calls to patients. 

    The position is perfect for those who like interacting with people and it can present an excellent jumping-off point for those who are considering a future career in nursing. 

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    Part Seven Medical Assistant Job Outlook 

    Forbes magazine lists medical assistants as “one of the hottest occupations in the United States today,” citing BLS statistics showing that the profession is expected to surge nearly 29% by the year 2026. 

    What's driving this demand? The National Healthcare Association says it’s our aging population and the increase in patients who have access to health insurance.  

    Part Eight Where Do Medical Assistants Work?

    Medical assistants can work in any team-based healthcare environment. Most work in physician’s offices or outpatient clinics, but they can also work in:

    1. Hospitals
    2. College and University Health Centers
    3. Nursing Care Facilities
    4. Diagnostic Facilities (X-ray, Imaging and Laboratory)
    5. Medical Research Centers
    6. Insurance Companies 
    7. Doctors' Offices
    8. Chiropractors' Offices

    Medical assistants are increasingly valued by healthcare facilities that have come to rely on them to help with care management tasks and to act as patient liaisons, easing some of the burdens on nurses and physicians. 

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    Part Nine Medical Assistant Jobs - Employment Rate by State and City 

    According to occupational employment statistics compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019, there were over 700,000 medical assistants working in the United States, with approximately one third employed in just five states.

    The States with the highest employment of medical assistants are: 

    • California – 96,850
    • Texas – 65,170
    • Florida – 57,410
    • Pennsylvania – 29,280
    • New York – 27,730

    The five states paying the highest annual mean wage to medical assistants are:

    • Alaska - $45,630
    • District of Columbia - $44,530
    • Washington - $43,760
    • Massachusetts - $41,780
    • Minnesota - $41,710 

    When considering a career as a medical assistant, you may also want to consider what metropolitan areas have the highest employment level for the profession. The top five in the United States are: 

    • New York/Newark/Jersey City NY/NJ
    • Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim CA
    • Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington TX
    • Chicago/Naperville/Elgin IL/IN/WI
    • Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach FL 

    Part Ten Where Can I Learn More About Medical Assistants? 

    If becoming a medical assistant is something that you would like to explore further, there are numerous resources available to provide you with information. Contacting the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) or the American Registry of Medical Assistants is a good place to start. 

    Also, check with the National Healthcareer Association which certifies medical assistants for specific roles including medical administrative assistant (CMAA) and clinical medical assistant (CCMA).  

    The National Center for Competency Testing also certifies medical assistants and has published some professional resources on its website.

    Part Eleven Why Should You Start a Career as a Medical Assistant? 

    Becoming a medical assistant places you in the fast-growing medical field, and it could be the first step toward a higher-paying healthcare job.

    But these aren’t the only two reasons to consider this career path.  

    You Can Make a Difference

    Medical assistants are highly valued members of the healthcare team who can make a real difference to patients. 

    Compared to performing surgery or prescribing medication, medical assisting may seem insignificant. But without medical assistants, physicians, nurses, and other specialists couldn’t focus solely on patient care.

    Plus, most medical assistants interact with patients every shift which means you’d always have chances to make someone’s healthcare experience better. 

    You'll Have a Steady Job With a Good Income 

    Medical assistants work predictable, stable hours, earn a good salary that often includes benefits, and can feel secure that their skills are very much in demand.

    It's a Great Starting Point for Many Healthcare Careers

    As we mentioned above, working as a medical assistant provides a quick entry into the medical field.

    Medical assisting can provide insight into the roles that various healthcare practitioners play, giving you a chance to decide whether you would like to move into a higher-paying medical job.

    A lot of LPNs, RNs, advanced practice registered nurses, and even some physicians started their careers as medical assistants.  

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    Part Twelve Medical Assistant FAQs 

    • How long does it take to become a medical assistant?

      • You can become a medical assistant in one-to-two years, depending upon whether you choose to pursue hands-on training, certification, or an accredited program offered as part of an associate's degree. 
    • Where can I take the Certified Medical Assistant exam? 

      • The Certified Medical Assistant exam is administered by the American Association of Medical Assistants. You can apply to take the exam here.

    Part Thirteen Related Articles

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