Medical assistants are commonly found in the offices of physicians and other healthcare practitioners where, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they perform functions such as taking patients' history and vital signs, assisting with examinations, scheduling appointments and preparing blood samples for the laboratory.
The BLS also reports that medical assistant careers are currently in transition due to the increased implementation of electronic health records (EHRs). Therefore, it's crucial for medical assistants to be proficient with EHR software. The BLS notes that medical assistants work standard, full-time hours for the most part, although some may need to take evening or weekend shifts at 24-hour medical facilities from time-to-time.
How to Become a Medical Assistant
While a college education isn't necessary for medical assistant jobs, earning a postsecondary credential or degree could give candidates an edge in their career search. According to the BLS, employers may prefer to hire medical assistants who have completed formal medical assistant training, as well as some form of certification. The following steps represent one possible path towards a career in medical assisting, but are not a guarantee of employment:
- Earn a high school diploma, or GED, while focusing on science-related coursework such as anatomy, physiology and biology.
- Complete an associate degree OR certificate program in medical assisting, which typically includes a combination of class instruction and clinical training. Medical assistant training is available at community colleges, vocational schools, technical schools, or universities. According to the BLS, some states may require medical assistants to graduate from an accredited program, pass an exam, or both in order to perform advanced job functions.
- Become professionally certified by a national certification agency such as the American Association of Medical Assistants.
- Contact health department in the state you wish to work in to see if separate state certification, licensure or registration is required.
- Apply to entry-level medical assistant jobs in your area.
- Keep professional credentials active by completing continuing education credits or other requirements.
Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensing
Graduates of medical assistant training can pursue professional certification through a number of different organizations, several of which are outlined below:
- American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA): The AAMA offers medical assistants the opportunity to become a Certified Medical Assistant, or CMA.
- American Medical Technologists (AMT): AMT offers certification as a Registered Medical Assistant, or RMA.
- National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT): The NCCT offers the National Certified Medical Assistant certification, or NCMA.
- National Healthcareer Association (NHA): NHA gives medical assistants the opportunity to become certified as a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, or CCMA.
Medical assistants must take continuing education courses in order to stay up-to-date on current practices and keep their professional certification active. Some states require their own certifications or licenses, which define the scope of practice of medical assistants. For example, the state of Washington now issues four different credentials for medical assistants, detailing the duties they can perform. Check with individual state health departments for comprehensive licensing and certification information.
Medical Assistant Specialties
Depending on where they work, medical assistants may be able to specialize in either the administrative or the clinical aspects of the job -- or in a specific area of medicine. Examples provided by the BLS include:
- Administrative Medical Assistants: Check in customers, schedule appointments, reorder medical supplies, enter patient health records, and carry out similar tasks. May be referred to as medical office assistants.
- Clinical Medical Assistants: Take patient vital signs, sterilize equipment, prepare patients for examinations, and perform other clinical duties as permitted by their employer and state.
- Ophthalmic and Optometric Medical Assistants: Assist ophthalmologists and optometrists in providing eye care to patients. May assist in ophthalmological surgery.
- Podiatric Medical Assistants: Work under the supervision of podiatrists to make foot castings, take X-rays, and complete related.
Medical Assistant Job Growth and Average Salary
According to the BLS, employment of medical assistants is expected to surge between 2010 and 2020, increasing by 31 percent during that timeframe - nearly twice as fast as the national growth rate for all occupations. This exceptional growth is partly attributed to an aging baby boomer population. Baby boomers are expected to demand more preventative medical procedures, which are often offered in physicians' offices. Furthermore, the BLS projects that physicians' offices will hire additional medical assistants to perform the bulk of routine administrative and clinical duties in order to allow doctors to see more patients. According to the BLS, the annual median wage for medical assistants was $29,370 nationally in May 2012, with the top 10 percent of earners bringing in more than $41,570 and the bottom 10 percent making below $21,080. As with any career, earnings for medical assistants can vary due to factors such as location, experience and education.
List of Related Careers
With additional education and training, medical assistants may be able to branch off into other careers within the healthcare industry. These can include the following:
- Dental Assistants: Assist dentists with routine patient care and administrative tasks within a dental office.
- Nurse Assistants: Help provide basic care to patients in hospitals, clinics, or long-term care facilities.
- Occupational Therapy Assistants: Assist occupational therapists as they treat patients with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities.
- Pharmacy Technicians: Help licensed pharmacists as they dispense prescription medication.
- Physical Therapist Assistants: Work under the supervision of physical therapists to help patients recover from movement-impairing injuries, illnesses and surgeries.
Links to Sources and Associations
The following websites offer more information about medical assistant training, careers and certification:
American Association of Medical Assistants, http://www.aama-ntl.org
American Medical Technologists, http://www.americanmedtech.org
Medical Assistant, FAQs, Washington State Department of Health, 2013, http://www.doh.wa.gov/LicensesPermitsandCertificates/ProfessionsNewReneworUpdate/MedicalAssistant/FrequentlyAskedQuestions.aspx
Medical Assistants, May 2012 Occupational Employment and Wages, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319092.htm
Medical Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm
National Center for Competency Testing, https://www.ncctinc.com
National Healthcareer Assocation, http://www.nhanow.com