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How to Become a Medical Assistant | A Complete Guide

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Many people dream of working in healthcare but are put off by the profession’s lengthy and rigorous process. The primary barriers are the substantial financial investment and years of residencies, certifications, and exams. However, there are other exciting options for people seeking a career in healthcare. Here, we take an in-depth look at the steps to becoming a medical assistant. We also cover other vital information needed to succeed in this career.

Who Is A Medical Assistant?

A medical assistant is a healthcare worker who helps facilities run smoothly. They are involved in administrative tasks as well as patient care and help to bridge the gap between doctor and patient.

It is important to note that medical assistants are different from physician assistants. While physician assistants are qualified to diagnose and treat patients under a physician’s supervision, medical assistants cannot diagnose or treat patients.

Medical assistants are essential members of the Patient-Centered Medical Home Team (PCMH). A report by the Healthcare Intelligence Network shows that medical assistants are among the top five workers in the PCMH team. Other personnel within the PCMH include case managers, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, and physician assistants.

Related Resource: How to Become a Physician Assistant

Duties of A Medical Assistant

The profession of medical assistants splits tasks into two broad segments — administrative or clinical. However, according to the Occupational Analysis of Medical Assistants, programs train students to perform clinical and administrative functions.

The duties depend on factors such as the employer and work location. Below we list examples of typical work tasks for the two kinds of medical assistants.

Administrative Medical Assistants

Some of the administrative duties revolve around business operations and include:

  • Answer phone calls
  • Receive patients
  • File and update patient medical records
  • Fill out Insurance forms
  • Handle bookkeeping, correspondence, and billing
  • Schedule appointments

Clinical Medical Assistants

Alternatively, some of the duties involve patient care and include:

  • Help physicians during examinations
  • Perform electrocardiograms
  • Describe treatment processes to patients
  • Take medical histories
  • Administer medications under the supervision of a licensed healthcare provider
  • Dress wounds
  • Educate patients on diets and medication
  • Perform simple laboratory tests

Steps To Becoming A Medical Assistant

The most significant advantage is that the process is not as rigorous as other healthcare careers. The critical achievements you need include:

Step 1. Earn A High School Diploma or GED

You must start with a high school diploma or GED as your first step. Students should concentrate on math and science courses such as chemistry, statistics, algebra, biology, and physics in high school. These courses lay a foundation for your career. Volunteering at a physician’s office or a local clinic can also give students an edge when applying for programs.

Step 2. Complete A Medical Assistant Program

The opportunities to work straight after high school exist. However, completing an accredited program will give high school graduates a great advantage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that most employers seek candidates with postsecondary training.

Furthermore, employers prefer Registered Medical Assistants (RMAs) or Certified Medical Assistants (CMAs). The candidate must have completed a certificate or diploma program to earn these certifications.

Some factors to consider when choosing a program include accreditation, alumni outcomes, financial costs, and the mode of lectures (in-person or online). Hands-on experience is also essential as it provides direct contact with patients.

Step 3. Find Internship Opportunities

Apart from the regular coursework and labs, an internship or externship benefits your career opportunities. During the internship period, you have the chance to practice all you have learned at a hospital, specialty practice, or clinic. As an intern, you can shadow professional medical assistants and even perform some basic tasks under supervision. In addition to the experience that internships can provide, candidates can also fortify their resumes with important accomplishments from these experiences.

Step 4. Get Certified

You need to pass a certification exam in some states before practicing professionally. Many employers also require specific certifications from potential employees. The top certification paths are the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) and the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA). The certifications cover areas such as physiology, anatomy, legal compliance, safety, and medical terminology.

Even if your state doesn’t require certification, getting certified enhances your work skills — a great move. With a certificate, you can boost the education section of your resume. It also increases your chances of landing a great position.

Step 5. Apply for Medical Assistant Roles

Regardless of training and skill acquisition, you might never land your dream job if you don’t put yourself out there. Take the initiative and apply for assisting roles in specialty centers, hospitals, and clinics. Suppose it takes too long to find a job. In that case, it is advisable to take on more volunteering opportunities, especially at a local hospital or clinic.

Licensing And Certifications

Certification demonstrates proficiency and competency. Additionally, it proves to potential employers that you have the necessary knowledge and skillset to work as a medical assistant. However, more often than not, certification is voluntary.

The five major certifications include:

  • Registered Medical Assistant
  • Certified Medical Assistant
  • National Certified Medical Assistant
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant

You can find the details for each certification below.

Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)

Healthcare employers recognize the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) certification all over the country. The American Medical Technologists (AMT) administer this credential.

To be eligible for the RMA exam, candidates have four options:

  • Military: Complete a medical assistant training program in the US Armed Forces
  • Education: Complete an accredited medical assistant program with a minimum of 720 program hours within the last four years
  • Instructor: Complete a course in a healthcare-related discipline and work as a medical assistant educator for at least five years
  • Experience: Work as a medical assistant, taking up administrative and clinical duties for a minimum of five out of the previous seven years.

Certified Medical Assitant (CMA)

The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential is one of the most prestigious in the country. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) administers this certification, recognized both nationally and globally. The AAMA receives over 100 requests daily from employers seeking to verify the certification status of applicants. This level of activity shows the level of trust companies place in this certification.

In a rigorous exam, candidates have two hours and forty minutes to answer 200 multiple-choice questions. The test covers topics such as:

  • Knowledge of patient intake
  • Healthcare delivery
  • Safety and infection control
  • Health information management
  • Medical insurance

Only candidates who have graduated from a postsecondary medical assisting program are eligible for the CMA (AAMA) examination. Either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) must accredit your program.

Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)

The Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) credential helps you gain the necessary skills to take on administrative roles in medical settings. The National Healthcareer Association (NHA) administers this certification. Applicants must have completed a medical assisting program within five years or a high school diploma or GED.

National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)

The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) grants the National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) credential. Applicants must meet eligibility requirements to take the exam, including paying the exam fee. Once a candidate passes the exam, they earn this certification.

The eligibility requirements include:

  • Experience
    Medical assistants with a high school diploma or equivalent can become NCMA certified. They must also have at least two years or 4,160 hours of full-time work experience as a medical assistant. This work experience must be under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional.
  • Medical Assistant Graduate or Current Student
    Applicants can also get the NCMA certification if they are high school graduates who have completed a medical assisting program within the previous five years. Current students can also apply, but they must present documents within two years after completing the program. You will need to provide transcripts.
  • Military
    The last route through which applicants can earn an NCMA certification is through service in the military. Applicants working for the US Armed Forces must have a high school diploma or GED. Another requirement is a DD214 or a SMART transcript that proves a successful completion of the medical services training program within the previous five years.

Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)

The National Healthcareer Association (NHA) administers the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) certification. Requirements for this credential are:

  • A high school diploma or GED and completion of a medical assistant training program in the last five years.

OR

  • One year of supervised medical assisting experience within the last three years.

In some states, you need a license to practice as a medical assistant. It is vital to check with the licensing boards of various states to see the criteria to practice in that state.

Career Options

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that physicians’ offices employ 57% of medical assistants. They also work in outpatient care centers, medical and surgical offices, and offices of chiropractors. Below, we highlight some of the roles in clinical and administrative capacities.

Clinical Medical Assisting Jobs

Working in a clinic offers more opportunities to use medical technology and equipment and work with a physician. Some of the specialties you can pursue include:

Podiatry

Medical assistants in foot and ankle facilities develop x-rays, make foot casts, and help with the surgery. The role demands a solid understanding of foot anatomy. These professionals often have to work with patients in a lot of pain. Working in podiatry can also serve as an excellent foundation for a career in sports medicine.

Ophthalmology

Ophthalmic medical assistants work with physicians who focus on the eyes. The duties of this position require you to collect medical history from the patient. You will also conduct eye exams, help the doctor with minor surgeries, and educate patients on using and caring for contact lenses.

Chiropractic

Chiropractic medicine seeks to approach medical challenges with more natural approaches. Medical assistants help chiropractors administer different treatment techniques to patients, such as cold and hot therapies.

OB-GYN

OB-GYN is short for obstetrician-gynecologist. Medical assistants for OB-GYN physicians have to be versed in the female anatomy, menopause, pregnancy, and related issues. They often help to provide education and guidance to pregnant women.

Administrative Medical Assisting Jobs

People who are detailed and organized will thrive in administrative medical assistant roles. Professionals in this field do not have a lot of contact with physicians. But they are still essential to the smooth running of healthcare facilities.

These professionals handle the business side of medicine. They often work as administrative assistants, medical billers, and coders. Medical billers and coders track patients’ data, analyze records, and work with physicians to be as accurate as possible.

Skills for Medical Assistants

Professionals who excel in this career path possess several soft and hard skills essential in the healthcare field. Apart from being dedicated, compassionate, and driven, they are also detail-oriented and knowledgeable. Since they handle multi-dimensional tasks, they must possess strong interpersonal skills alongside laboratory and clinical skills.

Interpersonal Skills

One of the most important aspects of this job is customer service. Patients are the customer in this case. They are often the first person the patient meets at a healthcare facility. Their attitude can shape the patient’s impression. Interpersonal skills are vital for relating with patients and co-workers alike.

Communication Skills

Strong communication skills are essential when dealing with nurses, doctors, and patients. This involves listening to instructions, treatments, and concerns. It is also vital to pass across medical information clearly and concisely.

Problem-Solving Skills

Medical assistants need to think on their feet and offer solutions to problems. Whether a nurse has difficulties with medical tools or a patient battling illness, solid problem-solving skills can be the difference between life and death.

Teamwork

A big part of this role heavily depends on teamwork and demands that you work with other medical team members to help patients.

Empathy

Understanding the needs of others and showing empathy are vital in the healthcare industry.  Respect, kindness, and care are invaluable in the position.

Clinical Skills

In addition to interpersonal skills, medical assistants need strong technical skills to provide quality patient care. Some of the clinical skills include:

  • Injections
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Vital signs measurement
  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
  • Phlebotomy
  • Life support
  • Patient preparation
  • Medical terminology

Administrative Skills

In addition to clinical and interpersonal skills, this career also requires the following practical office skills to aid in the smooth running of any healthcare facility:

  • Appointment setting
  • Scheduling
  • Medical coding
  • Telephone skills
  • Multitasking
  • Electronic medical records
  • Organization

While some of these skills come naturally to some individuals, others have to be learned and perfected on the job.

Technological Skills

A medical assistant has to be tech-savvy and stay updated with the latest trends in the healthcare sector. Professionals often work with spirometers, nebulizers, and other medical tools. As such, you need to grasp the basics of medical equipment and software.

Many physicians and hospitals use Electronic Health Records (EHRs) in managing patient data. There are often questions concerning patient records that need to be dealt with as they arise. In this role, you may be in charge of managing patient records. Therefore, they need to have an understanding of:

  • Software maintenance
  • Editing data
  • Security and privacy of patient data
  • Running reports

Work Environment for Medical Assistants

A medical assistant’s work environment differs from one workplace to another. It is common to see fast-paced work environments, but slow work environments also abound.

For example, clinical medical assistants may have to be on their feet for the entirety of their shifts, frequently helping other personnel perform tasks. The caseload grows if they work in a busy location that constantly receives new patients. On the contrary, the workload in a private clinic may be less.

Also, medical assistants working in 24/7 emergency care facilities often have to work in various full-time shifts, including weekends, nights, and holidays. Those working in clinical settings may work three 12-hour shifts weekly. In contrast, those working in specialty clinics have a more traditional work week with weekends off.

Salary / Job Outlook for Medical Assistants

As of May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that medical assistants earned an average of $35,850 annually. Those in the top 10% made as much as $50,580, while entry-level medical assistants earned below $26,930.

The top earners typically worked in outpatient care centers with an estimated $38,860 annual salary. At the same time, hospitals and physicians’ offices came next with $37,050 and $35,870, respectively. Medical assistants who worked in offices of chiropractors earned an estimated $31,470.

The BLS further predicts that the employment rate for medical assistants will go up by 18% between 2020 and 2030, which is way faster than the average occupation. According to the BLS, there should be around 104,400 openings yearly. Many of these openings will stem from retirements or professionals switching careers.

Related Resource: Highest Paying Healthcare Careers by Degree Level

Benefits of Becoming a Medical Assistant

The benefits of becoming a medical assistant are enormous. First is the satisfaction that comes with helping others. Also, there are opportunities to advance to more significant roles. Let’s look at some of the benefits of this career path.

  • Specializations

Medical assistants have the opportunity to grow into highly specialized roles. For example, those working in a podiatrist clinic learn to process x-rays, make foot casts, and help the physician during procedures. This specialization can be advantageous if they choose to advance or move into other positions in the healthcare system.

  • Career Growth

It takes around four years to earn a university degree. In that time, people can land a medical assistant role and earn a paycheck. You can complete a medical assisting diploma program in as little time as one year. At the same time, associate degrees typically take 18 months or more. Although this career does not require a lot of time chasing degrees or certifications, that does not imply that the role is any less critical.

  • Networking

Since medical assistants have to work with technicians, nurses, medical directors, and doctors, they have the perfect platform to build valuable relationships and networks. They can also establish relationships with patients and connect with them in different settings.

  • Job Satisfaction

Working in the healthcare setting can be one of the most satisfying choices. A medical assistant’s role allows them to provide care and support to ailing patients. The hope and support these professionals offer cannot be underrated.

  • Financial Benefits

A career as a medical assistant is an excellent route to financial freedom. Most earn more than their contemporaries in manufacturing and retail jobs. Additionally, with the right practical experience and educational credentials, you will be given more responsibility and a fatter paycheck.

  • Job Security

Once medical assistants go past the entry-level stages of the profession, they become very valuable in the healthcare system. In the event of a down market, they are less likely to lose their jobs.

Advancement Opportunities for Medical Assistants

There are many opportunities to advance and move on to more significant roles. This includes positions such as:

  • Lead medical assistant
  • Clinical team leader
  • Medical records manager
  • Medical office manager
  • Clinical office manager
  • Executive medical office secretary
  • Healthcare administration
  • Medical assistant instructor

With an increase in the number of older people who need constant medical attention, there is also a rise in the demand for medical assistants. Advancements in technology and an increase in healthcare centers and physician’s offices are good signs for aspiring medical assistants. There is no better time than now to get started in the field. You can also visit our educational resource center to learn more about medical assistants and other related healthcare jobs.

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