Medical assistants are multi-tasking medical personnel who provide essential support to licensed healthcare practitioners. They perform a mix of medical assisting duties including administrative and clinical. MAs typically handle everything from filing insurance claims and taking vital signs, to helping a patient to the bathroom.
If you have an interest in healthcare, you may have heard of certified medical assistants (CMA) and registered medical assistants (RMA). These are assistants who have chosen to get credentialed. Becoming credentialed isn’t compulsory – except in a few areas like Washington state. Medical assisting is growing at 16% per year, so it’s worth understanding the terms.
CMA and RMA are the two main badges of professional honor. Despite sharing some similarities, CMA and RMA certifications have distinct differences in terms of eligibility, exam content, and scope of practice.
We look at the essential differences between RMA and CMA, and break down what it all means on a professional level.
Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)
An RMA is a credentialed medical assistant, certified by the professional body American Medical Technologists (AMT). To achieve this credential, the registered medical assistant passed an exam administered by AMT. To be eligible to sit the exam, the applicant first had to graduate from a recognized education program or prove work experience in the field.
B. Eligibility criteria and exam
Students who completed an accredited medical assistant training program in the last four years are eligible to take the certification exam. The training school should be accredited either by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
Students may choose to study for an associate degree over two years or may decide on a shorter course. A key requirement is that the program provides 720 hours of instruction including 160 hours of practical work experience.
Certain categories of medical assistants with credited work experience are also eligible. The first of these is medical assistants who can evidence three years of full-time employment in the field over the last seven years. This must include both administrative and clinical duties.
Secondly, members of the military who received medical services training in the United States Armed Services in the last four years also qualify. Applicants who are involved in instructing in the medical assisting discipline may seek AMT’s approval to register and write.
The exam comprises 200-210 multiple-choice questions. Applicants have two hours to answer. Knowledge is tested in the three broad areas of medical assisting – general assisting, clinical work, and administration. Candidates usually don’t have to wait too long to hear if they have received their medical assistant credentials.
C. Benefits of RMA certification
RMA certification gives the holder credibility and respect. It shows that the medical assistant has attained a higher professional standard, and is committed to career learning and advancement. Employers tend to have more confidence in the capabilities and expertise of registered medical assistants. Some patients are very likely to feel the same.
In many cases, job opportunities and earning potential improve with certification. It is estimated that credentialed medical assistants earn around 10% more than the average medical assistant. American Medical Technologists is a highly connected organization and encourages its members to take advantage of the peer network.
RMA certification is a great foundation from which registered medical assistants can seek further credentials. This springboard credential may open opportunities to specialize and earn a higher salary. The registered medical assistant can choose to take further certification in specialty fields like ophthalmology or podiatry for example.
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Certification
A CMA is a medical assistant who is certified through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). To achieve this credential, the certified medical assistant must graduate from an accredited training school and pass the AAMA exam. The official designation of the CMA credential is CMA (AAMA).
A CMA (AAMA) awards the recipient with the oldest recognized accreditation in medical assisting. The certification is recognized and respected nationally.
B. Eligibility Criteria and exam
To sit the CMA exam, applicants must have graduated from an accredited medical assistant program within the past three years. The program must be accredited by the bureaus mentioned above- ABHES and CAAHEP. Unlike RMA, applicants are unable to qualify for the exam purely based on work experience.
The exam tests applicants’ general medical assisting knowledge in the three broad areas of general medical assisting, administration and patient care. The assessment comprises 200 multiple-choice questions administered in four 40-minute sections.
C. Benefits of CMA certification
CMA credentials bring greater credibility and respect. A certified medical assistant has shown commitment to invest in themselves and grow their knowledge. The profession recognizes and appreciates them upskilling themselves.
CMAs are sure to find new doors opening for them in the job market. Their earnings potential and prospects should track upwards.
Rules related to Medicare and Medicaid stipulate that only credentialed personnel may enter laboratory, medication and radiology orders in an electronic health record. A practice that accepts Medicare and Medicaid payments will be keen to hire a credentialed medical assistant.
The American Association of Medical Assistants is a well-established networking organization. It actively promotes networking among its certified members. CMAs can also benefit from school or college networks they developed while studying.
Key Differences Between CMA And RMA
A. Scope of practice
There is little difference in the scope of practice between CMAs and RMAs. Both are expected to carry out clinical and administrative duties. Their purpose is the same- to help their senior medical professionals deliver optimal medical and patient care.
On any given day a certified medical assistant may file insurance claims, remove stitches, and arrange blood tests. A registered medical assistant across town may do essentially the same tasks on the day.
The median pay for medical assistants was $37,190 and $17.88 an hour in 2021. It is thought that the difference between RMA and CMA salaries is negligible.
B. Exam content and structure
Both the RMA exam and CMA exam are recognized and offered across the United States.
The exams are administered differently, but they share definite commonalities. Both have approximately 200 multiple-choice questions. The registered medical assistant assessment is a two-hour sitting. The certified medical assistant test is slightly longer, comprising 4 x 40-minute sections. The registration fees are similar at around $130.
The exams cover much of the same learning ground. RMA focuses on clinical and medical assisting. It also assesses finance and insurance, as well as medical ethics. CMA emphasizes clinical and admin procedures. Laboratory procedures and medicolegal rules also feature. Medical terminology, anatomy and physiology are core to both.
AAMA prides itself on its rigorous testing. Many medical assistants who have taken both assessments say the CMA (AAMA) exam is slightly harder.
C. Eligibility requirements
- RMA– Certain military personal, medical assistant instructors, and suitably experienced medical assistants can apply for RMA certification.
- CMA– The only path to the CMA exam is through completion of an accredited training program. CMA applicants should hold either an associate degree, diploma, or certificate.
D. Recertification requirements
RMAs need to recertify every 3 years. Recertification is granted when the registered medical assistant shows evidence of continuing education. AMT encourages credentialed medical assistants to earn points through activities that grow their knowledge, help them do their job better, and prepare them for a healthcare degree or management role.
RMAs must record their learning activities over the cycle. If they show AMT the necessary qualifying activity, they are recertified for 3 more years.
CMAs are required to recertify every 5 years. They are expected to pursue ongoing learning. They must record their CEUs (Continuing Education Units). Certified medical assistants are recertified for another cycle if they earn enough CEUs (currently 60).
Annual fees must be paid to American Medical Technologists and American Association of Medical Assistants to keep certification current.
Choosing Between CMA And RMA
CMA was started in 1963. RMA came into existence in 1972. Both are nationally recognized and respected credentials. Perhaps because it is older, CMA is slightly more widely recognized. There was a view that CMA was superior, but this perception has changed over time. Today, a registered medical assistant typically enjoys equal status with a certified medical assistant.
Several factors may influence your choice between CMA and RMA. Your state or preferred employer might lean more toward one than the other. Earnings and career opportunities are always key considerations. The different recertification cycles may also be a factor.
Your personal preferences and career goals will come into play. If most of your professional network are CMAs, you may want to join the club. Alternatively, you may choose to go a different route to bring a fresh perspective. If school or college is not a viable option for you, you can still earn an RMA through practical experience and the one-off exam.
It’s a good idea to monitor job postings in your area to see if local employers have a preference since this will affect salary and prospects.
No doubt, many employers and healthcare professionals will have a preference for one or the other credential. However, the two medical assistant certifications are united in a common purpose: to recognize professionalism and ensure the best delivery of healthcare services.
Your choice of credential will depend on your personal circumstances and professional goals. The medical world is evolving fast. Both CMA and RMA certifications promote continual learning. This is a huge net positive for medical assisting and healthcare generally.
Some medical assistants actually hold both RMA and CMA certifications. This is possibly something to consider longer term. It can surely only benefit your medical assisting career in these fast-changing times.
What is the passing score for an RMA exam?
To pass the RMA exam students need to answer 70% of the questions correctly.
How much does it cost to get an RMA certification?
The fee to sit the RMA exam is currently $135. If you completed an education program prior to the exam, that would be part of your overall cost of certification.
Can I work as an RMA if I have a CMA certification.
The jobs of RMAs and CMAs have a great deal in common. As a CMA you are credentialed on par with an RMA. If employers are willing to hire you for an RMA role you should have the knowledge and capabilities to do the job.
Medical Assistants : Occupational Outlook Handbook: : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov)