Among the nation's fastest-growing careers, medical assistants have a variety of lucrative job options. Students can pursue medical assistant certificate programs and two-year degrees, graduating with the qualifications necessary to work as medical assistants and earn optional certification.
Essential Career Information
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What is a Medical Assistant?
Medical assistants provide administrative and clinical support to physicians, healthcare providers, and allied health professionals. These professionals enjoy strong job prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for medical assistants to grow 23% through 2028.
Medical assistants differ from medical office managers and physicians' assistants in that they are not exclusively trained in administrative or clinical practices but rather perform basic tasks in both disciplines. These professionals play a crucial role in the patient-centered team of providers in healthcare facilities, often functioning as the primary liaison between patients and medical staff.
While medical assistants do not require licensure, many employers prefer candidates with certified medical assistant (CMA) credentials, awarded to students who complete a medical assistant training program and pass an exam administered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you take a medical assistant exam without going to school?
No, students must complete an accredited medical assisting program to be eligible to sit for a credentialing exam.
Can you work as a medical assistant without being certified?
Currently there are no universal certification requirements for medical assistants; however, employers may prefer certified candidates.
How do I prepare for a medical assistant interview?
Candidates should prepare to discuss their education, training, and experience, emphasizing strengths in areas involving technology and electronic medical records management.
How long does it take to become a certified medical assistant?
While programs vary, students can complete most certificate programs in 1-1.5 years and associate degrees in two years.
What is the highest-paid medical assistant job?
With an average salary of $35,600, Medical assistants working in outpatient care centers earn the highest average salary among comparable positions.
What is the job outlook for a medical assistant?
The BLS projects jobs for medical assistants to grow 23% through 2028, particularly for candidates with certification and expertise in electronic health records management.
Where can you work as a medical assistant?
Most medical assistants work in physicians' offices, though they may also work in outpatient care centers, hospitals, or for specialized care providers, such as chiropractors or ophthalmologists.
What Does a Medical Assistant Do?
Medical assistants support physicians and healthcare providers by performing administrative and clinical tasks in a medical facility. Depending on the employer, medical assistants may perform more administrative tasks than clinical or vice versa.
Medical assistants may perform administrative duties such as answering phones, welcoming patients, and processing bills and bookkeeping, all of which require advanced communication, customer service, and accounting skills. In addition to general administrative skills, students who complete an accredited medical assisting program receive training for field-specific tasks, including managing electronic medical records.
Medical assistants also perform clinical duties, which may include prepping patients and assisting with exams, drawing blood, taking patient histories, and collecting lab specimens. Some professionals may also prepare and administer medications, transmit prescriptions, and perform basic lab tests under physician supervision.
Medical assistant training also prepares professionals for alternative career paths, such as autopsy assistant, chiropractic assistant, and ocular care aide. An autopsy assistant works alongside medical examiners to determine an individual's cause of death, while chiropractic assistants and ocular care aides act as medical assistants for physicians in their respective specialties.
Physician Assistant vs Medical Assistant
Physician assistants exclusively provide clinical support and can perform more advanced tasks that medical assistants, such as diagnosing patients and prescribing medications. Due to their higher level of responsibility, most physician assistants need a master's degree and a state-issued license through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.
How to Become a Medical Assistant
Most states do not specify education requirements for medical assistants, though employers generally prefer graduates of a medical assistant certificate or degree program. Medical assistant programs give students the administrative and technical skills needed to succeed in the profession.
While most medical assistants complete a postsecondary certificate program or earn an associate degree, some professionals receive on-the-job training instead, particularly when working for a specialist, such as a chiropractor or medical examiner. On-the-job training often includes learning medical terminology, coding electronic health records, and performing daily office tasks specific to the facility.
Students pursuing a certificate or associate program should ensure that the program holds accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Accreditation indicates that a program meets high academic standards and expands employment and education opportunities.
Medical Assistant Certificate Programs
Earning a CAAHEP- or ABHES-accredited postsecondary certificate prepares graduates for certification exams and further study. Most medical assistant certificate programs comprise 44-58 credits and take 1-1.5 years to complete.
An accredited medical assisting certificate program includes introductory courses on topics like anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, and common computer applications. Most programs emphasize office, clinical, and laboratory procedures. Programs also typically require students to complete an externship, practicum, or clinical component during the final semester of study.
Medical Assistant Associate Degree Programs
Most medical assistant associate programs comprise around 60 credits and take two years of full-time study to complete. Some programs, particularly distance learning options, allow students to complete the degree in less time.
Coursework introduces students to the same core topics as certificate programs, including computer healthcare applications, basic clinical procedures, and medical billing and insurance, in addition to liberal arts topics like psychology, sociology, and communication. Associate degrees also require intensive clinical experiences. Degree-holders typically qualify for more jobs than graduates of certificate programs.
Medical Assistant Professional Licensure and Certification
Although no formal licensure requirements for medical assistants exist, students may earn voluntary certification to advance their career. Several organizations offer professional certification to medical assistants, such as the CMA credential offered through the AAMA and the National Certified Medical Assistant credential offered through the National Center for Competency Testing.
To qualify for a credentialing exam, students must complete, or be in the process of completing, an accredited medical assisting program culminating in a diploma or certificate. Applicants must also verify that they completed a practicum as part of their training program. Fees and exam times vary, but the CMA exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions and costs $125 or $250, depending on whether the candidate holds AAMA membership.