Medical Assisting Career and Education Overview
Learn what medical assistants are, what they do, what their educational requirements are, how much they get paid, where they work, and a lot more!
What is a Medical Assistant?
The simple answer 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.
Typical Job Description
Here is a detailed list of the types of responsibilities typically held in this role:
- 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 profession, including:
- Administrative—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.
- Clinical—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—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. They may also assist during eye-related surgeries.
- Podiatric—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.
Keep in mind that even though there aren't legal 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, formal training can help you obtain the 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 more advanced tasks (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 You Can Expect to Learn in 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 programs will provide preparation training for industry certification examinations.
If you choose to take a more specialized route, the curricula will vary depending on the specialty. For example, a program meant to help you become an administrative/front office medical assistant will focus the majority of training on administrative skills, whereas a clinical/back office medical assistant program will have the bulk of the training focus on the more practical aspects related to direct patient care.
Generally, tuition 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.
Program duration depends entirely upon the type of school and program you choose. For instance, a short-term certificate from an online school could be completed in just a few months, whereas a more in-depth and longer-term associate degree 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.
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 because it shows employers that you have met the minimum requirements of the industry. Pursuing this qualification also tends to suggest to employers that you are committed to joining this area of health care since successfully gaining certification requires time, effort, and a monetary fee.
You can choose to prepare for the medical assistant certification examination in one of two ways: with study material you've purchased from the certifying organization or through an accredited program.
The following four organizations 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 program, whereas another might administer an examination before awarding certification.
According to the most recent national estimates, gathered in a May 2012 study, the average medical assistant salary rates break down like this: *
- Median annual wages were $29,370.
- The highest 10 percent earned $41,570 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.
Some of the most common areas of employment for medical assistants include:
- Physicians' offices
- Other health care practitioner offices
- Outpatient care centers
- Hospitals and surgical centers
- Colleges, professional schools, and universities
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)
Projections from 2012 show that the employment of medical assistants is expected to increase by 29 percent over a 10-year period.* This makes it one of the fastest-growing occupations since the average growth rate for all occupations is just 11 percent.
Some of the factors that are influencing the growth of the 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
- Additional tasks required due to the continued trend of health care facilities switching from paper files to electronic health records
Benefits of Medical Assisting
Some of the most common advantages 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 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 with your work.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, website last accessed on June 15, 2015.
The American Medical Association (AMA), website last accessed on June 15, 2015.
The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), website last accessed on June 11, 2015.
The American Medical Technologists (AMT), website last accessed on June 11, 2015.
The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT), website last accessed on June 11, 2015.
The National Healthcareer Association (NHA), website last accessed on June 11, 2015.