by Kaitlin Louie
Medical assistants perform important clinical and administrative tasks such as scheduling patient appointments, recording patient history, measuring vital signs, assisting physicians with patient examinations and procedures, and conducting blood tests and other labwork. Medical assistants are an essential part of the health care industry, as they ensure that medical settings, from specialist clinics to general hospitals, run smoothly and efficiently. Due to the crucial role that medical assistants play in helping physicians address patients’ needs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012) reports that the employment of medical assistants is expected to grow 31 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is much faster than the national average.
Medical assistants generally work full time in health care facilities or physician’s offices. Medical assistants interact on a daily basis with physicians and other medical staff, as well as patients and their families, and thus they have the frequent opportunity to have a positive impact on many different people.
While no formal education requirements exist to become a medical assistant in most states, some employers prefer to hire individuals who have completed a medical assistant training program at an educational institution. Such programs typically grant individuals diplomas, certificates, or in some cases associate degrees upon their completion of the curriculum. Medical assistant certifications from professional certifying organizations are also not required, but the majority of employers prefer them. Medical assistant training programs can help individuals prepare for certification exams.
What is the difference between a clinical and an administrative medical assistant?
Particularly at larger health care institutions, medical assistants can specialize in either administrative or clinical work. Clinical and administrative assistants have different career paths and training programs.
- Administrative Medical Assistants (also known as medical secretaries or medical office assistants) perform office duties such as answering telephone calls to the office, scheduling patient appointments, completing insurance forms, coding patient information, and maintaining medical records. Unlike clinical medical assistants, administrative medical assistants do not typically interact with patients outside of an office setting.
- Clinical Medical Assistants work directly with patients alongside physicians in a clinical environment. Clinical medical assistants perform such tasks as taking and recording patient vital signs, preparing patient treatment and examination rooms, sanitizing medical equipment, administering patient treatments under the supervision of a physician, and conducting basic lab tests.
While these two positions are indeed distinct from one another, at smaller medical centers their duties may overlap. For example, clinical medical assistants can take on administrative duties, such as scheduling patient appointments or filling out insurance forms.
This career profile focuses on clinical medical assistants. Click here for more information on administrative medical assistants/medical secretaries.
If interested in a career in medical assisting, the following questions are helpful to consider and investigate:
- What is the difference between a clinical and an administrative medical assistant?
- What are the general steps towards becoming a clinical medical assistant?
- What medical assistant training programs are available and how can they be helpful?
- Do medical assistants require certification in order to work?
- What additional training and certifications might employers look for in medical assistant candidates?
- What are the general responsibilities of the clinical medical assistant?
- What tools and technology do medical assistants routinely use?
- What key skills are required for the clinical medical assistant profession?
- What is the typical job environment of the medical assistant?
- What is the employment outlook for medical assistants?
- What is the average salary of a medical assistant?
- What are some careers that are related to medical assisting?
Read CareerColleges.com’s interview with Mary Newsad, a Certified Medical Assistant, to learn about her work environment and daily responsibilities. Prospective medical assisting students can learn more about program options from our interview with medical assisting instructor Teresa Williamson.
What are the general steps towards becoming a clinical medical assistant?
While the career path of the clinical medical assistant differs from individual to individual, the general steps to become a medical assistant include the following:
- Research specific requirements for medical assistant education, training, and certifications for one’s state of residence.
- Complete a medical assistant training program and fulfill any additional educational requirements for one’s state of residence (ex. training in x-ray procedures or giving injections).
- Apply for medical assistant certification from an accredited certifying organization.
- Apply for jobs at hospitals, specialty clinics, and other medical/health care settings.
- Receive on-the-job training at one’s place of employment under the direction of a physician or more experienced medical assistant.
What medical assistant training programs are available and how can they be helpful?
Medical assistant training programs can provide education and training to help candidates become competitive in today’s job market. The courses and training provided in such programs can also prepare students for one of the exams for medical assisting certification. Medical assistant training programs are available at vocational schools, trade schools, community colleges, technical schools, and some universities, and usually lead to a diploma or certificate. These programs typically last a year, though some junior and community colleges offer 2-year programs that end in an associate degree. The subjects generally covered in medical assistant programs include:
- Human Anatomy and Physiology—the study of body systems and their functions, as well as common diseases and physical conditions.
- Medical Terminology—definitions of words and terminology for basic anatomical structures, surgical procedures, medical treatments, and diagnostic procedures.
- CPR and First Aid—emergency and first aid procedures, including CPR and how to address burns, poisoning, and shock/trauma.
- Computer Fundamentals—how to operate word processing, database, spreadsheet, and email software for administrative healthcare purposes.
- Medical Insurance—different insurance plans and companies, medical insurance terminology, and how to file insurance claims.
- Medical Laws and Ethics—medical ethics and principles, standards of professional conduct in various health care settings and situations.
A good number of medical assistant schools include internships or externships as part of their required curriculum in order to give students on-the-job training. These externships and internships are usually located at local health care facilities, such as physician’s offices or hospitals. Some medical assistant training programs partner with local medical facilities to provide their students with internships, while others require their students to search independently for these internship positions.
Do medical assistants require certification in order to work?
Though medical assistant certification is not formally required in most states, employers prefer candidates to be certified, so aspiring medical assistants should seriously consider obtaining certification. Currently four medical assistant certifications are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Each of these certifications has an exam and specific education, training, and/or work experience requirements.
- The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) offers the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) certification. AAMA requires that certification candidates graduate from a postsecondary medical assisting program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) in order to qualify for the CMA Certification
- American Medical Technologists offers the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) certification, which requires that candidates either complete a medical assistant program at an accredited institution or complete five years of work experience before taking the RMA certification exam.
- The National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) certification from the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) requires that candidates complete a NCCT-approved medical assisting program or undergo two years of relevant professional experience.
- The Clinical Medical Assistant Certification (CCMA), provided by the National Healthcareer Association, requires that candidates successfully complete either a medical assistant training program or one year of professional work experience prior to taking the certification exam.
While the specific content of each certification exam listed above differs, these exams generally test clinical medical assistants on the concepts, knowledge, and practices that are essential to the duties they routinely undertake in a healthcare setting:
- General Medical Knowledge
- Human Anatomy and Physiology
- Medical Terminology
- Medical Laws and Ethics
- Communication Skills, Professionalism, and Human Relations
- Administrative Duties
- Medical Insurance
- Patient and Financial Records
- Office Maintenance
- Appointment Scheduling
- Clinical Duties
- Sanitation and Infection Control
- Patient Preparations, Vital Signs, and Examinations
- Clinical Pharmacology
- Lab Procedures
- First Aid and Emergency Care
Depending on one’s certifying organization, re-certification in medical assisting is required every 2-5 years. The process for re-certification generally involves taking another exam or enrolling in and passing a certain number of continuing education courses. The number of continuing education units required for re-certification varies among certifying organizations; thus, medical assistants should check with the institution with which they are certified in order to receive the most accurate information on the requirements for re-certification.
Confusion commonly arises regarding the difference between certified and registered medical assistants. Certification and registration are effectively the same, and simply depend on the organization providing the credential and what term they decide to use. Thus, the qualifications for registered and certified medical assistants are essentially equivalent.
What additional training and certifications might employers look for in medical assistant candidates?
In addition to requiring medical assistant certification from one of the nationally accredited organizations listed above, many employers also prefer or even require their candidates to earn and maintain CPR certification and/or basic life support certification. Some specialized medical clinics ask medical assistants to receive additional training and certification in advanced tasks such as giving specialized injections or taking x-rays. Furthermore, medical assistant candidates should be prepared to pass a health and a background check and/or receive certain vaccinations in order to work with patients.
What are the general responsibilities of the clinical medical assistant?
The main responsibilities a clinical medical assistant include:
- Record patient history and vital signs
- Assist physician in patient examinations, treatments, and other procedures
- Maintain cleanliness and order of patient examination rooms
- Sterilize medical instruments and dispose of contaminated medical supplies
- Administer treatments under the direction of a physician
- Collect blood, tissue, and other lab samples, prepare these samples for testing, and keep track of labwork specimens
Supplemental responsibilities of clinical medical assistants include:
- Schedule and keep track of patient appointments
- Gather and organize patient information and records
- Complete patient insurance forms and contact insurance companies
- Answer calls to the medical office
At specialized medical clinics and larger medical centers, some medical assistants’ duties can vary according to the specialty of their overseeing physician. For example, at a private optometry clinic, medical assistants may be called upon to assist optometrists in eye examinations and providing contact lenses and eye care advice.
What tools and technology do medical assistants routinely use?
The tools and technology that medical assistants are authorized to use vary according to one’s state of residence and place of employment. However, in general, medical assistants consistently use the following:
- Blood pressure measurement tools
- Sanitizing equipment, such as alcohol wipes
- Vaccine-administering tools, such as hypodermic needles
- Patient management and electronic medical records software
- Electronic accounting, billing, and bookkeeping software
What key skills are required for the clinical medical assistant profession?
Clinical medical assistants work closely with patients and medical professionals to ensure that health care facilities provide adequate and efficient services. They must therefore possess skills that enable them to interact productively with others, record detailed medical information, and understand essential health-related concepts.
- Listening—medical assistants must elicit and record important information from patients, such as medical histories, physical complaints and concerns, and current medications and allergies. Careful listening is therefore a crucial skill in this profession.
- Attention to Detail—while taking patients’ vital signs, recording a person’s medical history, or evaluating a patient’s physical condition, medical assistants must be observant, and must also accurately and thoroughly record the facts for health care and insurance purposes.
- Communication—reporting important information to physicians and nurses and explaining medical procedures and treatments to patients are two primary responsibilities of the medical assistant.
- Interpersonal—medical assistants interact on a daily basis with patients and medical personnel such as physicians and nurses. As a result, they must maintain a professional yet pleasant demeanor that puts patients at ease and facilitates productive conversations with colleagues.
- Analytical—interpreting various test results and recorded patient information, as well as understanding various medical charts and diagnoses, are required of medical assistants on a daily basis.
- Technical—medical assistants must be competent with various pieces of medical equipment such as blood pressure monitors, thermometers, needles, sanitation equipment, and more.
- Organizational—medical assistants must maintain the cleanliness and order of patient examination rooms and medical offices.
What is the typical job environment of the medical assistant?
The job environment for the medical assistant differs according to the place of employment. For example, a hospital may have a much more fast- paced environment than a private podiatrist’s clinic. Furthermore, while most medical assistants are called upon to take on the same core set of clinical and administrative tasks, additional responsibilities may be expected of medical assistants who work in specialty clinics or in particularly intensive medical environments. Medical assistant candidates should research different employers’ expectations and on-the-job requirements. Medical assistants typically work full-time, and some even work into the evenings or on the weekends at health care centers that are always open.
Clinical medical assistants regularly interact with, not only their overseeing physician, but also nurses, physicians assistants, patients, and administrative medical assistants. They can also discuss billing and claims issues with insurance companies.
Health risks in the workplace are a valid concern for medical assistants, and include exposure to infections and disease, needles, radiation, and potentially dangerous chemicals. Medical assistants must also work on their feet for long hours, interacting with patient and medical staff, which can result in back or foot pain. Proper care must be taken to schedule adequate breaks and to take appropriate safety measures when interacting with patients who are ill (such as wearing gloves and properly sanitizing patient examination areas and equipment).
What is the employment outlook for medical assistants?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), the employment of medical assistants is expected to grow by 31 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is much faster than the national average for all occupations. One significant reason for this projected increase is the fact that, as the baby boomer population ages, they will require more preventive medical care. In addition, there is an increasing need amongst medical centers for cost-effective clinical and administrative assistance so that physicians can spend more time consulting with patients. Primary health care is also an expanding industry in America, and as medical assistants work mainly in primary care, they should see an increase in demand for their services in the health field. Furthermore, as more medical records are turning to electronic databases for storage and organization, medical assistants who are trained in or familiar with electronic health records may find increasing demand for their knowledge and services.
States with the highest employment level in this occupation as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
What is the average salary of a medical assistant?
According to bls.gov, the mean compensation for medical assistants in 2011 was $30,170 per year, or $14.51 per hour. Salaries vary among specialties and health care institutions. Medical assistants generally work full time, and some even work additional overtime hours.
Percentile wage estimates for medical assistants as of May 2011:
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
Top paying states for medical assistants as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
District of Columbia
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
- Dental Assistants help dentists care for patients, keep track of patient records, and make appointments, among other administrative and dental tasks.
- Dental Hygienists clean patients’ teeth, examine patients’ mouths for oral diseases, and provide other dental care services under the direction of a dentist. Dental hygienists also advise patients on proper oral care.
- Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses provide basic nursing care under the direction of physicians and registered nurses. Their duties include checking patients’ blood pressure, changing bandages, cleaning wounds, administering medications, monitoring patient health, and preparing patients for medical examinations or procedures.
- Medical Office Assistants, also known as medical secretaries or administrative medical assistants, work at the front desks of health care facilities and perform secretarial duties such as answering phone calls, scheduling patient appointments, coding and organizing patient information, and filling out medical insurance forms.
- Medical Records and Health Information Technicians record, organize, classify, and maintain electronic and paper health records for health care institutions.
- Nursing Aides, Orderlies, and Attendants provide care for individuals in hospitals and long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes.
- Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides assist occupational therapists in treating patients who have injuries, disabilities, or illnesses and who need to recover the ability to complete daily living and working activities.
- Pharmacy Technician assist licensed pharmacists in dispensing prescribed medications.
- Physical Therapist Assistants work under the guidance of physical therapists to help patients recover from physical injuries and illnesses. They also perform clerical work and maintain the cleanliness and organization of a physical therapy space.
- Psychiatric Technicians and Aides care for individuals who have mental illnesses and/or developmental disabilities. Technicians generally assist in psychiatric patient treatment, while aides assist these patients with daily activities.
Resources and Additional Information:
"http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm" | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Medical Assistants
"http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/31-9092.00" | O*Net Online: Medical Assistants
"http://www.aama-ntl.org/" | American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
"http://www.americanmedtech.org/Certification/MedicalAssistant.aspx" | American Medical Technologists
"https://www.ncctinc.com/Certifications/" | National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)
"http://www.nhanow.com/clinical-medical-assistant.aspx" | National Healthcareer Association
Kaitlin is a content writer and editor for CareerColleges.com and CityTownInfo.com. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English Literature, and aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing and social dancing on the weekends.