What is a Medical Assistant? Career & Salary Overview

    August 5, 2020
    Young woman in scrubs working at front desk in hospital

    Healthcare careers are incredibly rewarding, and positions within healthcare are very much in demand. If you are considering a job in the healthcare industry and want to start working fast, becoming a medical assistant is a great option. 

    Becoming a medical assistant offers the opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives, while also providing the opportunity to easily transition into management or another healthcare position. We’ve prepared this helpful guide to 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 duties and clinical 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. 

    Despite the importance of the role, medical assistants do not require extensive education or credentials. To become a medical assistant, all you need is to have completed high school and obtained your diploma and to have completed a medical assistant program. 

    Medical Assistant programs generally take between one and two years to complete, depending upon whether your goal is simply to obtain your certification or to combine certification with completion of an Associate's Degree program. Both types of programs are available.

    It is important that when choosing a program you select one that 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. 

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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 within. While those who work in specialized environments may receive training appropriate to the office’s needs, in most cases, the medical assistant can expect to perform both clinical and administrative duties 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
    6. Administering electrocardiogram examinations
    7. Removing sutures
    8. Changing dressings on wounds
    9. Instructing patients about procedures and treatments
    10. Performing basic laboratory exams
    11. Collecting laboratory specimens and preparing them for analysis
    12. Providing information to patients regarding prescribed diets or medications
    13. Transmitting prescriptions and refills to pharmacies as instructed
    14. Following up with patients after office visits or treatments

    Part Three Medical Assistant Salaries

    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 command. In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported their median salary as $34,800.

    Another reason Medical Assisting is an excellent job is because it’s in such high demand. The BLS predicts that there will be a 23% increase in Medical Assistant employment over the next ten 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 

    Though some medical assistants enter the field with nothing more than a high school diploma and on-the-job training, only those who invest the time and effort into attending a program accredited by the CAAHEP or ABHES are eligible to take the CMA (AAMA) Certification exam. 

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

    Medical Assistant Courses

    Students can expect to take courses 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 

    These programs can be offered both in-person and online and are frequently offered through community colleges. Accredited programs will also include a certain number of hours of hands-on experience. 

    Following completion of the program (or within 30 days of completing their program), candidates for the CMA certification can take the Certified Medical Assistant exam, which is credentialed through the Certifying Board of the American Association of Medical Assistants. The exam is comprehensive and includes multiple-choice questions broken up into four segments. 

    Part Five Medical Assistant Programs 

    If you are interested in becoming a medical assistant, you have the option of taking classes in-person or choosing a program that allows you to take some of your classes online. There are many advantages to pursuing your education online, including being able to choose the program that best suits your budget and being able to proceed at your own pace while continuing to earn money at your current job or attending to personal and family responsibilities. 

    3 Types of Medical Assistant Programs

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

    1. Certificate Program

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

      Diploma degrees are taken through hospitals or clinics and provide more hands-on training. As a result, they require less time in a practicum.
    3. Associate Degree

      Associate degrees generally take two years to complete. They are offered through community colleges and offer more comprehensive education that can later be built upon to earn a Bachelor’s degree or to transition to another career in healthcare, including nursing. 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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    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 information for existing patients.
    4. Their patient interaction may also include taking and recording 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 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. 

    The National Healthcare Association attributes the growing number of people seeking healthcare as a result of the aging of the population and the increased number of people with medical insurance, as part of the reason why there is so much demand for the skills and expertise offered by medical assistants. 

    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 (Imaging and Laboratory)
    5. Medical Research Centers
    6. Insurance Companies 

    They are increasingly valued by healthcare groups 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 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. Those 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. 

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

    Becoming a Medical Assistant is not only a step into a great career in the healthcare industry but it can also serve as a stepping-stone from which you can transition into other healthcare positions in the future. 

    You Can Make a Difference

    Medical Assistants are highly valued members of the healthcare team who have the opportunity to make a real difference in the quality of care that patients provide and how smoothly the healthcare setting operates.

    You'll Have a Steady Job With a Good Income 

    They work predictable, stable hours, earn a good salary that often includes benefits, and can feel secure that the profession is very much in demand.

    It's a Great Starting Point for Many Healthcare Careers

    Additionally, for those who have long dreamed of working in healthcare, working as a medical assistant provides a quick entry that will provide tremendous insight into the roles that various healthcare practitioners play, providing you with the ability to observe and truly gauge whether you would like to move on to become a medical office manager, an LPN, an RN, an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse or any other type of healthcare professional in the future. 

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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.

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