How to Become a Medical Assistant

Medical assisting is a great career with a promising future. As the healthcare industry continues to grow, physicians, medical centers, hospitals and other medical facilities and employers need qualified medical assistants. These are the professionals who provide support and assistance to nurses and doctors, helping facilities run smoother and keep patients safer.

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If you are considering a healthcare career, look at what it takes to become a medical assistant. There are no education requirements, but a post-secondary program up to two years in length is strongly recommended. With two years or less of training, you could begin working in a rewarding career that is growing at a very fast rate, providing job stability and a great income. 

What are Medical Assistants?

Medical assistants are healthcare professionals who work alongside and assist physicians and nurses. More than half of employed medical assistants work in physician offices, but about 15 percent work in hospitals. Other employers include outpatient medical facilities, nursing homes, chiropractic offices, and companies that offer home healthcare services.

The responsibilities of a medical assistant on the job vary, but typically include a combination of hands-on work dealing with patients and administrative tasks. The specific duties depend on the size of the office or medical center, the facility’s specialty and the individual’s certification, education and experience level.

Medical assistants work under the supervision of licensed medical professionals. Sometimes this supervision is direct, but there are many tasks medical assistants can do independently but under a physician’s or nurse’s direction.

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Typical Responsibilities of a Medical Assistant

There are two main categories of duties for a medical assistant: clinical and administrative. In larger facilities, you may be assigned to one or the other, but many medical assistants perform a combination of both. Clinical duties are those that involve working with patients on their healthcare:

  • Learning and following patient confidentiality guidelines and laws
  • Communicating with and helping patients feel more comfortable
  • Getting patients ready for an exam
  • Taking patient vital signs and medical histories
  • Explaining exams, procedures and treatments to patients
  • Communicating a physician’s instructions to patients
  • Assisting physicians during patient examinations
  • Collecting and preparing samples for laboratory tests, including drawing blood
  • Performing some basic lab tests
  • Preparing and giving medications as directed by a physician
  • Administering certain tests, like electrocardiograms
  • Changing dressings and removing stitches

Administrative duties include tasks that involve the smooth running and organization of a medical office or facility:

  • Taking phone calls and responding to messages
  • Welcoming and signing in patients
  • Updating patient medical records
  • Filing patient medical records
  • Completing insurance forms
  • Making arrangements for laboratory tests or hospital admissions
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Using computers to manage files, appointments and electronic records
  • Managing the mail, billing and bookkeeping

According to the American Association of Medical Assistants, there are many potential duties and responsibilities for medical assistants. Based on a survey, there are 12 responsibilities and tasks that medical assistants report are most important and inform their daily work the most:  

  1. Follow patient confidentiality laws
  2. Communicate appropriately to enhance the understanding of each individual patient
  3. Demonstrate respect for individual patients, based on culture, language, race, gender and other factors
  4. Use professional strategies for communicating and interacting with patients
  5. Comply with safety rules and risk management procedures
  6. Interact with patients and other staff in such a way to help the facility run more efficiently
  7. Keep up with patient records
  8. Provide care for patients that is within legal boundaries
  9. Practice safe care and recommended precautions
  10. Document communications from patients, observations made by physicians and treatments
  11. Watch out for consequences of failing to operate under the expected practices of a medical assistant
  12. Communicate information through electronic means

What Are the Medical Assistant Requirements?

Medical assistant requirements vary by employer and state. Most states have no requirements for calling yourself a medical assistant or for working as one. However, state laws do typically outline the duties that a medical assistant can and cannot do. These laws determine what a licensed medical professional, such as a physician or nurse, can delegate to a medical assistant, which duties require supervision and which can be done unsupervised.

Most employers prefer to hire medical assistants who have had a formal education and are certified by a recognized agency like the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). There are other organizations that offer testing for certification, but the AAMA is the most frequently cited and most recognized.

A formal education for medical assisting can take one of a few different forms. It could be a certificate or diploma program that takes less than two years to complete. Or, you may choose to complete a two-year associate degree program in medical assisting. The latter option takes longer but does give you more options for advancing in your career or continuing your education into other areas of healthcare.

While an education is not strictly required, it is the most typical route to becoming a medical assistant. An alternative option is to train on the job. Some employers are willing to hire medical assistants without a post-secondary education and teach them the job while they work. For this option, you should be willing to work and learn and operate with strict supervision for the first couple of years.

Traits and Skills Needed to Be a Good Medical Assistant

Before officially starting on the path to becoming a medical assistant, make sure you understand not just the steps but also what it takes to be good at and enjoy this career. Know the duties and daily tasks and responsibilities and be sure you feel you are a good fit to work in a healthcare setting.

A medical assistant must have certain skills and knowledge to do the job well. For instance, you need a basic understanding of anatomy, pharmacology, medical terms, medical office procedures and administrative tasks like keyboarding, using software and using phone systems.

Those are the skills you can learn on the job or in an education program for medical assisting. To be good at this job and to enjoy a career as a medical assistant, you should also have certain inherent characteristics:

  • Patient and compassionate. Medical assistants work directly with patients and must be able to treat them with respect, kindness and care. You will encounter people who are frightened, confused and even angry and need to be able to help them with patience.
  • Communication. Communication in a medical setting is essential for patient safety. You must be able to listen to physicians, nurses and patients, and provide information for each patient in a way that helps them understand it.
  • Attention to detail. Also important for patient safety is attention to detail. You must be able to follow detailed instructions and rules, make careful observations, and record details about patient symptoms and physician instructions, treatments, medications and observations.
  • Adaptability. No day is ever the same in a medical setting, so to be a good medical assistant you must be willing and able to adapt on the fly. You have to be able to change your approach, for instance when working with different patients.
  • Organization. As a medical assistant, you will be dealing with a lot of information, and to keep patients safe and the office running smoothly it must be kept organized. Keeping records and notes is essential.
  • Problem solving. While medical assistants do work under the supervision of physicians and nurses, they are often working independently. You will have to be able to make decisions about what to do next and how to solve problems quickly in situations where a physician cannot be immediately reached.

If you don’t like working with people, if you are not interested in being organized or paying attention to details, if being responsible for health and safety seems daunting, or if you can’t be patient with people who are scared or frustrated, this may not be the career for you.

Start Planning for a Medical Assisting Career in High School

If you know that you want to work in healthcare in any role, the courses you take in high school, and the grades you earn, can help take you in the right direction. Plan to take all the basic science classes: biology, chemistry and physics. Also take any health or anatomy classes offered. A foundation in math is also important in medical careers, so take classes through algebra II.

The better your grades, the easier it will be to get into a good academic program for post-secondary study. If you choose to forgo college and train on the job, these are still important considerations. A good academic background and the right coursework will show employers you are serious about the job, prepared to be trained and willing to learn.

How to Become a Medical Assistant with a Formal Education

The recommended path to becoming a medical assistant is through a post-secondary education program. You can find these programs at career or vocational colleges, community colleges and private, for-profit colleges. Online programs are available, but most are on campus or a mix of in-person and online classes.

If you choose an online program, make sure it is accredited and will prepare you to pass a certification exam. It should also include a work experience requirement such as an externship. To get certified later, you will need to have a certain number of hours spent working in a clinical setting.

Post-secondary programs for medical assisting include diplomas, certificates and degrees. Certificate and diploma programs take less than two years to complete and cost less. Associate degree programs are more common. They take two years to complete but better prepare you for a career in healthcare. Some employers may require a degree. A degree will also be useful in the future if you want to be promoted at work, move into another area of healthcare or go back to school to earn a four-year degree.

Before choosing a program to learn to become a medical assistant, ask questions and consider specific factors:

  • Look at the tuition costs and other fees and be sure you can afford them.
  • Consider schools that have financial aid programs if tuition will be an issue.
  • The time it takes to complete a program can be an important factor if you need to start working and earning soon.
  • Check out the courses and curriculum to be sure the program covers all the important subjects.
  • Choose a program that includes a practicum, a work experience, internship or externship in an actual clinical setting.
  • Request information about graduation rates and how many graduates go on to pass certification exams.
  • Only choose a program that is accredited by a reputable organization such as the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs.

Check with accrediting agencies and the AAMA to find schools and programs that are approved and accredited. There are many programs available in all states, and there is no reason to settle for one that is not approved and that may limit your career options or ability to get certified.

Simply enrolling in an education program is not enough to become a medical assistant. In order to be prepared to pass a certification exam and land a job, you must graduate and show employers that you learned the necessary skills. It is essential to take your education and training seriously, and to learn what is needed to pass the certifying exam and do the actual work of medical assisting.

How to Become a Medical Assistant with On-The-Job Training

Most medical assistants start out with a degree or other post-secondary credential, but this is not necessarily required. If you would rather start working right away and think about earning a degree later, apply at medical offices and other facilities as a trainee.

Some employers will take you on with no experience or education beyond a high school diploma or GED. If they see you are hard-working and willing to learn, they will train you to do the job as you work and start earning. Keep in mind, though, that you will probably earn less while training. And, if you want to become a certified medical assistant one day, you will eventually need a formal education. This option is useful if you cannot currently afford a degree program. You can start training, earning and gaining valuable experience while saving up for tuition.

Earn a Certification

Once you have completed a formal education program or are in the last couple of months of a program, you will be ready to start planning to get certified. As with a degree, certification is not strictly required to begin working in this field, but it is strongly recommended. You may find that your job options are limited without certification.

The most common certification for medical assistants is conferred by the American Association of Medical Assistants, but it is not the only option. Choose one or more of the following programs to become certified or registered:

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA). CMA is the title you will earn if you pass the AAMA’s exam. It is one of the most common and recognized certifications for medical assistants. To qualify for the certifying exam, you must have completed an approved program accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs. Check either of their sites for a searchable database of accredited programs. The CMA exam is administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners. You must register and pay the $125 fee to take the exam. Recertification is required every five years.
  • Registered Medical Assistant (RMA). American Medical Technologists offers an RMA certification. There are four ways to qualify for the RMA exam: completing an accredited education program; getting appropriate and relevant training through the military; having work experience as a medical assistant for at least five of the previous seven years; having three years of work experience plus experience as an instructor in medical assisting. The fee for the RMA exam is $120.
  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA). The NCMA certification is offered through the National Center for Competency Testing. The testing requirements include being a current student or a graduate of a medical assisting program, military training and two years of full-time employment as a medical assisting. Fees vary depending on how you qualify.
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA). A CCMA has passed the certification exam set by the National Healthcareer Association. To qualify for the exam you must have completed an educational program within the last five years, have at least one year of work experience within the last three years, have completed an approved apprenticeship or be an instructor with some work experience.
  • Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA). The National Healthcareer Association also offers a CMAA credential, which is specific to performing administrative duties on the job. The requirements are similar to qualify for the exam but relate to administrative training, education and experience.

The AAMA’s CMA certification is the most rigorous because the only way to qualify is to have completed a formal education program. But the other certifications have value, especially if you are unable to complete a program initially. These certifications can still show employers that you have the knowledge and skills, as well as training on the job, required to be a medical assistant.

Build Your Resume

Once you have completed your education or training and have earned or are working toward certification, get your resume ready to start the job hunt. If you resume is thin, consider getting any job in healthcare or working with people to demonstrate that you have some experience. Volunteer work in medical settings is also valuable on a resume.

Be sure to include your education, any award or honors you received while completing your program, all job experiences and your certification credentials. Also describe the experiences you had working on the practicum portion of your education program, if applicable.

It’s also important to prepare references as you begin looking for work. Instructors from your education program and supervisors and coworkers from past jobs are great choices for writing reference letters to demonstrate your skills and abilities. Also include the supervisor from your work experience or externship.

Apply and Interview for Jobs

With a finalized resume, you’re ready to start applying and interviewing for jobs. Consider the kind of setting you want to work in: a large hospital, small private practice, nursing home or specialty medical facility. Do you want to have just a few coworkers or be part of a large team? Do you enjoy working with kids or prefer adult patients?

Once your preferences are narrowed down, begin your search and start submitting your resume for interviews. Your school may offer job placement assistance to get you started, but you can also easily find job listings online. Or, go directly to the places you hope to work and submit a resume.

With interviews scheduled, it’s a good idea to practice. Sit down with someone who is willing to act as the interviewer and pretend it is a real setting. Interviewing can be stressful, even when you have all the qualifications for a job, so practicing will help you relax and gather your thoughts. Some of the questions you may be asked in an interview include:

  • What are your qualifications, education and certifications?
  • Describe your work experiences in medical settings.
  • How do you handle conflicts at work?
  • Explain one of the biggest challenges you had with a patient and how you solved it.
  • Why are you interested in working here?
  • Where do you hope to be in your career in five years?
  • What are your computer skills?
  • Do you have experience handling the phones and doing other administrative duties?
  • Why do you want to be a medical assistant?
  • What makes you the best candidate for this job?

Be prepared to go to interviews with all the necessary documentation. Have your school transcripts and proof of graduation, reference letters and your certification exam results or the actual certificate if you have already received it.

The Benefits of Becoming a Medical Assistant

The path to becoming a medical assistant is not as long or as costly as that required for other healthcare careers. It does, however, require a commitment of time and money and a dedication to learn and train. There are many benefits of going through this process and settling on a career as a medical assistant:

  • Job stability. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the outlook for medical assistant positions is very good. The number of positions is growing at a rate of 23 percent, much faster than average job growth across the country. This means you can enjoy good job stability as a medical assistant. Getting your first job shouldn’t be difficult as long as you are qualified.
  • A good income. According to the BLS, medical assistants earned a median salary of $34,800 per year as of May 2019. Those working in outpatient care centers earn the most, and the top ten percent of earners in the field make more than $48,000 per year.
  • Rewarding work. The practical aspects of medical assisting, job stability and income are important. But there are also intangible reasons to get into this career. You are likely to be happier with your job if it is meaningful, and you get that every day as a medical assistant. In this job, you will be actively helping people on a daily basis, making them feel comfortable, helping them get answers and being a vital part of treating patients and improving safety.
  • Work that is never boring. Another important factor in enjoying your work is variety. This job will never be boring because it is different every single day. Your overall duties will be the same most days, but you see unique patients. Every day brings new people with new challenges, concerns and problems. This is a career that requires problem-solving and that will keep you on your toes.
  • The ability to advance your career. Medical assisting is far from a dead-end job. If you know you want to work in healthcare but don’t feel you can spend four-plus years on school and tuition, this is an excellent place to start. From an entry-level job as a medical assistant, you can specialize or earn a leadership role. A degree in medical assisting and your work experience can also serve as steppingstones to earning a more advanced degree and becoming a nurse or even a doctor.

Becoming a medical assistant requires time, dedication and money, but it requires much less than many other medical careers. If you are ready to get into an exciting healthcare career sooner, this is a great way to do it. Pick out a great school and program, put in the time to learn and train, get the most out of your work experience and earn certification, and you’ll find it easy to land your first job.