Medical Assistant Career Information
W hen you picture your career future, does it involve joining the fulfilling health care industry and becoming an important part of a health care team? Do you want a dynamic career that lets you perform an incredibly wide range of tasks while working closely with both patients and health care professionals? If you have answered "yes" to these questions, then a career as a medical assistant could be your ideal match. Keep reading to learn what medical assistants are, what they do, what their educational requirements are, how much they get paid, where they work, and much more.
What is a Medical Assistant?
The simple answer to the question "What is a medical assistant?" is that medical assistants are health care workers who work alongside physicians and other medical professionals to help provide quality care to patients. The more in-depth answer is that they are multi-tasking experts who are able to provide assistance to both health care professionals and patients by performing administrative, clinical, laboratory, and direct patient care tasks.
What Does a Medical Assistant Do?
If you are still wondering, "What does a medical assistant do?" here is a detailed list of the types of responsibilities typically included within a medical assistant job description:
- Greeting patients
- Scheduling appointments
- Answering phone calls and fielding questions and requests
- Working with industry-related computer software applications
- Recording patient histories
- Creating, updating, and maintaining patient medical records
- Managing the logistics of hospital admissions, laboratory services, and more
- Performing medical billing and basic bookkeeping
- Processing insurance claims
- Managing inventory
- Purchasing supplies and equipment
- Authorizing drug refills and placing telephone prescriptions to pharmacies (under the direction of physicians)
- Collecting and handling specimens from patients
- Processing specimens for laboratory testing
- Performing basic laboratory tests on specimens while carefully following standard protocols
- Communicating test findings to physicians or other medical professionals
- Safely disposing of contaminated supplies
- Clearly explaining treatments and procedures to patients
- Educating patients on medications, special diet requirements, etc.
- Preparing patients for examinations, procedures, and x-rays
- Assisting physicians with examinations and procedures
- Preparing and administering medications (as directed by physicians)
- Drawing blood samples and administering injections
- Cleaning wounds
- Changing dressings
- Removing sutures
- Performing electrocardiograms (ECGs)
- Preparing, cleaning, and sterilizing examination rooms, equipment, and supplies
It is important to note that some states regulate the clinical tasks that medical assistants are authorized to perform. Not all tasks are authorized in all states.
In addition, there are specializations within the medical assisting profession. Some medical assistants may choose to pursue a career within a specific area. Some examples of specialized medical assistant positions include:
- Administrative medical assistants—focus on handling administrative duties and don't usually take on clinical or laboratory tasks. They often perform more advanced billing, bookkeeping, and insurance tasks than general medical assistants.
- Clinical medical assistants—stick to handling clinical tasks and don't often perform administrative or laboratory tasks. Their job description depends on the authorizations regulated by their specific state of residence.
- Ophthalmic and optometric medical assistants—work within optometrist offices or ophthalmic departments of hospitals and surgical centers. They are often responsible for assisting with eye care, teaching patients how to insert and remove contact lenses, testing, measuring, and recording eye function and sight, and much more. Ophthalmic medical assistants may also assist during eye-related surgeries.
- Podiatric medical assistants—assist podiatrists (i.e., foot doctors) in the diagnoses and treatment of foot-related injuries or issues. Some of their common duties can include taking, exposing, and developing x-rays, creating castings for feet, and assisting during foot-related surgeries.
What are the Medical Assistant Education Requirements I Need to Know About?
If you are interested in learning how to become a medical assistant, keep in mind that even though there aren't legal medical assistant education requirements in every state, most employers in the field will usually only consider applicants who have had formal training. Therefore, whether or not your state requires it, medical assistant training can help you obtain the skills, knowledge, and experience valued in the field. Plus, some states will require that you graduate from an accredited post-secondary program and pass an exam before allowing you to perform some of the more advanced tasks associated with a medical assistant career (such as administering injections and taking x-rays).
It is also worth noting that, as a high school student, it can be helpful to take biology, anatomy, and chemistry courses because they will apply to your career as a medical assistant and may also be prerequisites if you choose to continue your training at a vocational school, college, or university.
What Can I Expect to Learn at a Medical Assistant School?
A medical assistant program will generally cover three areas of study: administration, clinical skills, and laboratory work.
The administration portion of the curriculum usually includes:
- Medical billing, coding, and insurance processing
- Bookkeeping and basic accounting
- Secretarial duties (greeting patients, scheduling appointments, etc.)
- Computer software applications commonly used in a health care setting
- Patient records management
- Inventory management and purchasing
Clinical training can cover:
- Communicating with patients and educating them on post-treatment requirements as directed by physicians
- Preparing patients for examinations and assisting physicians during procedures
- Preparing and administering medications as per physicians' instructions
- Cleaning wounds and changing dressings
- Removing sutures
- Administering injections
- Taking x-rays and performing electrocardiograms (ECGs)
Laboratory training may include:
- Drawing blood samples
- Handling and processing specimens
- Performing basic laboratory tests
- Standard laboratory protocols
- Understanding laboratory results and accurately communicating them to physicians
Most programs also provide plenty of theoretical training related to anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, medical laws and ethics, and much more. Additionally, many medical assisting schools include an internship, externship, or clinical. This can allow you to gain experience within an off-site health care facility, working under the direction of physicians and other health care professionals. Plus, some medical assistant programs will provide preparation training for industry certification examinations.
If you choose to take a more specialized medical assistant program, the curricula will vary depending on the specialty. For example, a program meant to help you become an administrative medical assistant (commonly referred to as "front office medical assistant") will focus the majority of training on administrative skills and knowledge, whereas a clinical medical assistant (aka "back office medical assistant") program will have the bulk of the training focus on the more practical aspects related to direct patient care.
What Does Medical Assistant Training Cost?
An important question to ask when you are considering a future in this field is "What does medical assistant training cost?"
Generally, tuition for medical assisting programs can range from a few thousand dollars to about $25,000, depending on the school you choose, as well as the program length and education level you hope to obtain.
You should also look into what exactly is covered in a program's tuition. Some may include books and other fees within the overall cost of tuition, while others may charge separately.
Most schools have a financial aid department that can help you research financial aid options and eligibility factors, and fill out applications and other paperwork. Common sources of funding include federal grants and loans, scholarships, and work-study programs.
How Long is a Medical Assistant Program?
Another common question is "How long is a medical assistant program?" Again, the answer depends entirely upon the type of school and program you choose. For instance, a short-term certificate from an online medical assistant school could be completed in just a few months, whereas a more in-depth and longer-term associate degree program from a university can take up to two years.
However, career-oriented certificate and diploma programs from vocational schools, which can usually be completed within a year, tend to represent the middle ground in terms of length. And, they are often a good choice for those who want to prepare to enter the field quickly, yet still receive a balanced combination of theoretical knowledge, practical training, and real-life experience.
Is Certification Required to Work as a Medical Assistant?
Although certification requirements vary depending on state laws and specific job responsibilities, most medical assistant positions do not require certification by law. However, obtaining certification can be a huge asset when you are searching for employment in the medical assisting field because it shows employers that you have met the minimum requirements of the industry in terms of skills and knowledge. Pursuing this qualification also tends to suggest to employers that you are committed to joining this area of the health care industry since successfully gaining certification requires time, effort, and a monetary fee.
So, if you are interested in finding out how to become a certified medical assistant, then you should know about the following four organizations that are accredited to provide certification to medical assistants:
- The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) offers a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential.
- The American Medical Technologists (AMT) offers a Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) credential.
- The National Center for Competency Training (NCCT) offers a National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) credential.
- The National Healthcareer Association (NHA) offers a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) credential.
Each organization has its own unique set of protocols and prerequisites. One may only require that you graduate from an accredited medical assistant program, whereas another might administer an examination before awarding certification.
What is the Average Medical Assistant Salary?
For many people, salary is an important factor when choosing whether or not to pursue a specific profession. So, how much does a medical assistant make?
According to the most recent national estimates, gathered in a 2011 study, the average medical assistant salary rates break down like this: *
- Median annual wages were $29,100.
- The lowest 10 percent made $20,880 or less.
- The highest 10 percent earned $40,810 or more.
However, there are numerous factors that can affect salary rates, including experience and work environment. Location can also have a large impact. The same study shows that the highest paying states or regions were Alaska, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts.
Where Do Medical Assistants Work?
According to 2011 statistics, the health care environments with the highest number of medical assistants were: *
- Physicians' offices (13.88 percent)
- Other health care practitioner offices (8.11 percent)
- Outpatient care centers (5.29 percent)
- Hospitals and surgical centers (1.35 percent)
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools (0.25 percent)
Other health care facilities that tend to employ lower numbers of medical assistants (but provide higher pay) include:
- Scientific research and development centers
- Insurance agencies
- Dental offices
- Specialty hospitals (with the exception of psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals)
What is the Job Outlook for Medical Assistants?
Projections from 2010 show that the employment of medical assistants is expected to increase by 31 percent over a 10-year period.* This makes medical assisting one of the fastest-growing occupations since the average growth rate for all occupations is just 14 percent. To further clarify the estimated increase, consider that, in 2010, there were 527,600 employed medical assistants. This number is expected to rise to 690,400 by 2020.
Some of the factors that are influencing the growth of the medical assistant occupation include:
- The aging baby-boomer population and its increased need for preventive health care
- The number of health care facilities opening to fill the increasing demand for health services
- The expectation for medical assistants to take on additional tasks due to the continued trend of health care facilities switching from paper files to electronic health records
What are Useful Qualities for a Medical Assistant to Have?
Outside of the medical assistant qualifications gained through career training, there are some personal qualities that can help ensure success in the demanding health care industry, such as:
- Compassion—In order to work with sick or injured people, you need to have a strong sense of compassion and empathy.
- People skills—Dealing with illness or injury is tough. It can make people irrational, emotional, or even angry. Therefore, you need to have a solid set of people skills in order to handle, with grace, any outburst of emotion directed at you.
- Organization—Since medical assisting can involve so many different types of tasks (administrative, clinical, and laboratory), you need to be able to stay organized in order to manage your time and multi-task efficiently.
- Communication—From instructing patients on post-procedure care to relaying laboratory results to physicians, communication is a huge part of a medical assistant's job. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you have the ability to express yourself clearly.
- Teamwork—Since medical assistants are often required to work alongside physicians, nurses, and many other health care professionals, you need to be able to work positively and proactively as part of a team.
- Discretion—You will be privy to private details about patients. Therefore, you need to have the ability to be discreet and not share the information with any unauthorized parties.
What are the Benefits of Becoming a Medical Assistant?
There are many benefits to becoming a medical assistant. Some of the most common ones include:
- The opportunity to meet and interact with a variety of people on a daily basis.
- Knowing that your work is having a direct impact on the health and well-being of others.
- Having the opportunity to join one of the fastest-growing occupations, which also means having a good chance of obtaining a medical assistant position quickly.
- Peace of mind—due to the demand for medical assistants, job security tends to be quite good, regardless of recession.
- Working directly with patients without putting in the necessary time, money, and effort required to become a physician.
- Enjoying a wide variety of job responsibilities, making it is unlikely that you will become bored or dissatisfied with your work.
What Should My Next Step Be?
Now that you have learned all about the exciting and rewarding career of a medical assistant, you're ready for the next step. This guide to medical assisting schools and programs is a great resource to find educational options. Browse through the listings and request more information about the ones that pique your interest today!
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, website last visited on August 7, 2012.
The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), website last visited on August 8, 2012.
The American Medical Association (AMA), website last visited August 14, 2012.
The American Medical Technologists (AMT), website last visited August 8, 2012.
The National Center for Competency Training (NCCT), website last visited August 8, 2012.
The National Healthcareer Association (NHA), website last visited August 14, 2012.