Medical assistants are sometimes described as the unsung heroes of the healthcare system. They’re the personnel who provide essential support to senior healthcare professionals across a variety of fronts. They help ensure a medical office delivers quality health and patient care.
Medical assistants are often true multi-taskers. The assistant in a medical practice might do everything from scheduling appointments to maintaining medical records to taking vital signs. In bigger healthcare facilities, assistants tend to specialize in one of two areas. They either focus on administrative duties; or lean more toward direct patient care.
Assistants who manage the administrative function are called administrative medical assistants. Those who help with clinical tasks are known as clinical medical assistants. If you are interested in healthcare, it is useful to have a clear understanding of these two medical assistant roles.
Clinical Medical Assistant vs Administrative Medical Assistant
Definition and Duties
How do these two medical assistant roles differ? The clue is right there in the titles. The clinical medical assistant focuses primarily on clinical duties, while the administrative medical assistant manages all the administrative tasks necessary to run a successful health unit. Let’s look at how their respective responsibilities break down:
CLINICAL medical assistant
The clinical assistant supports the licensed physician with clinical tasks and procedures. The role boils down to supporting patient comfort and care. Some of the clinical assistant’s many responsibilities include:
- Recording patients’ medical histories
- Taking vital signs (weight, blood pressure, pulse)
- Disinfecting and sterilizing equipment
- Preparing patients for medical procedures
- Assisting doctors and nurses with patient examinations
- Drawing blood and taking other patient samples
- Administering testing of patient samples
- Administering medications
- Removing stitches
- Cleaning wounds and applying appropriate dressings
They may also administer basic laboratory tests, and advise patients on their diet or health conditions. Many clinical assistants hold an associate degree or diploma.
ADMINISTRATIVE MEDICAL ASSISTANT
The administrative medical assisting role is also known as a medical administrative assistant (MAA). In smaller offices, this assistant will be responsible for most of the clerical duties necessary to run the practice.
- Maintaining patient medical records and insurance forms
- Scheduling appointments
- Greeting patients
- Ordering and controlling inventory
- Assisting with insurance claims and queries
- Answering patient queries (online, telephonic, or in-person)
- Medical billing and payment processing
- Answering phones
- Drafting communications
- Liaising with state and regulatory boards where necessary
Medical administrative assistants with some training may also help with routine patient support like taking a patient’s vital signs. So, does an administrative assistant need a degree or diploma? We discuss the educational requirements for both medical assistants below.
Educational Requirements and Certification for Administrative Medical Assistant vs Clinical Assistant
Education requirements for medical assistants
To work in medical assisting, you must have a high school diploma or equivalent. High school graduates are sometimes hired out of school into a junior administrative assistant role. They receive on-the-job training relating to the office’s admin systems and processes.
Healthcare facilities and medical offices are less likely to hire clinical assistants who lack experience in clinical care. Employers also often want to see a relevant training transcript. The clinical role is a specialist area, and errors can have serious consequences.
Many colleges, technical schools, and online educators offer recognized medical assistant programs. These include classes and laboratory exercises. Reputable courses also incorporate practical work experience into the curriculum. These programs typically take nine months to two years to complete.
The subjects covered include medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and clinical procedures. The admin classes teach finance and insurance, administrative procedures, and medico-legal regulations. Accredited programs cover both disciplines in some detail. So, trained medical administrative assistants understand the basics of clinical work.
Certification and licensing requirements
While doctors and some other healthcare professionals must be licensed to practice, there is no such requirement for medical assistants. Certification isn’t compulsory for medical assistants either. However, it is often expected by employers. Certification demonstrates knowledge and capabilities and can help boost career opportunities.
The National Healthcareer Association (NHA) offers medical assistants two routes to certification – an administrative stream and a clinical stream.
Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)
To be eligible for certification, medical administrative assistants must have graduated from an approved education program. Alternatively, they need to show at least one year of supervised work experience.
They must then pass the NHA certification exam, which is just over 2-hours. The successful candidate becomes a certified medical administrative assistant.
Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)
To be eligible for certification, clinical medical assistants must graduate from an approved medical assistant program or have at least one year of supervised work experience.
They can then register to write the NHA certification exam. The 3-hour exam is designed to test knowledge of clinical work and procedures, as well as medical terminology. Some administration content may also be examined.
Three other leading industry certifications are:
- Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) – awarded by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
- Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)– awarded by American Medical Technologists (AMT).
- National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) – offered by the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT).
All certification bodies emphasize the importance of education and encourage candidates to complete a medical assistant program.
Skills and Qualities of Clinical and Administrative Medical Assistants
Clinical medical assistant
The clinical medical assistant needs excellent technical knowledge. This includes a strong understanding of medical terms and procedures. Aside from clinical expertise, a good clinical medical assistant has many other skills and qualities. Here are just a few:
- Good communication and interpersonal skills
- Attention to detail
- Flexibility and adaptability
- Discipline and organization
- Active listening
- The ability to work in a team
- Multi-tasking skills.
- Ability to prioritize
The clinical environment can be fast-paced and dynamic. The clinical assistant often has to adapt to changing circumstances and juggle competing priorities. They sometimes have to be on their feet for long periods, so stamina and reasonable health are essential.
A good bedside manner is perhaps the best quality to have. This is where empathy, compassion, and cultural sensitivity come into play. Not to mention active listening. Communicating clearly and sensitively helps put anxious and distressed patients at ease.
Medical administrative assistant
A medical administrative assistant is often the face of the medical facility. For this reason, a medical administrative assistant needs many of the same skills and qualities as a clinical practitioner.
- Warm manner and good interpersonal skills
- Attention to detail and accuracy
- Multi-tasking skills
- Great organization
- Good communication skills- including verbal and written
- Determined problem solver
Administrative assistants play their part in helping patients feel comfortable. In addition, they sometimes have to work patiently and methodically to reconcile a confusing insurance issue.
Typical Work Settings for Medical Assistants
Medical assistants work in a variety of settings. The nature and demands of the medical facility will determine their hours and conditions of work.
About half of all registered medical assistants work in physicians’ offices. Other medical facilities that employ medical assistants include hospitals, outpatient care centers, and chiropractors. Dentists, optometrists, and mental health practitioners also rely greatly on their professional knowledge.
A medical assistant who works in a medical office can expect to work mostly during office hours. Administrative medical assistants typically work more stable hours than their clinical counterparts. Clinical assistants’ schedules may include evenings, weekends, or holidays. They may also have to work shifts on-call. This might entail attending emergency callouts.
Career Advancement Opportunities
There are many potential career paths for clinical medical assistants. Some clinical assistants may choose to specialize in a particular area of healthcare. Popular areas of specialization are cardiology, pediatrics, ophthalmology, and podiatry. Others may pursue further education to become registered nurses or physician assistants.
Medical administrative assistants can work their way into supervisory or managerial roles. Some advance to the role of medical office manager. They might head up a hospital admissions department or a laboratory services unit.
With additional education and experience, both clinical and medical administrative assistants could become educators in their fields.
The career outlook for both clinical assistants and administrative medical assistants is exciting. According to official labor statistics, medical assistant jobs are expected to grow at 16% annually until 2031. The median annual wage for medical assistants in 2021 was $37,190. The median salary for medical secretaries and administrative assistants was $37,450 in 2021.
Clinical medical assistants and medical administrative assistants have two very distinct roles. Yet, their common purpose is to deliver the best quality of health and patient care. These professionals must often work closely together to achieve this. They both come to know vital patient data that needs to be shared. And accurately recorded in the patient’s medical records.
The job outlook for clinical and administrative medical assistants is rosy. You may be more drawn to one role because of your personal strengths and career goals. But know that trained clinical and medical administrative assistants are well-positioned to find many rewarding career opportunities in the coming years.
What are the main differences between clinical and administrative medical assistants?
A clinical medical assistant’s main responsibility is helping doctors and nurses with clinical duties and direct patient care. An administrative medical assistant manages the administrative duties and responsibilities to ensure a healthcare facility runs smoothly.
How long does it take to become a clinical medical assistant?
It takes time to learn the skills and knowledge to work as a clinical medical assistant. You will have to work for at least a year under strict supervision. Thereafter you can register to write the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant exam. After passing the exam, you are considered a certified clinical assistant.
Alternatively, you will need to complete an accredited medical assistant training program, which typically takes at least 9 months.