How to Become a Medical Assistant
Learn Everything You Need to Know About Medical Assisting
If you’re considering a career as a Medical Assistant, you might be wondering where you should start. This profession has numerous benefits, including a high degree of job security as well as a strong sense of personal fulfillment. If your goal in life is to serve and help others in your community, then you may find your calling as a Medical Assistant. These professionals serve a vital role to the healthcare industry and that of our society.
What is a Medical Assistant?
A Medical Assistant acts as both an administrator and healthcare professional, performing clinical duties and administrative tasks in medical offices, laboratories, hospitals, and other settings. In fact, you probably interacted with one at your last doctor’s appointment.
The history of Medical Assisting dates back to the 1950s. Others might argue that the profession is older than that but, before the 20thcentury, it didn’t have an official name.
Medical Assistants are unique in the healthcare field. They perform clinical and administrative tasks, but they don’t need to spend years in school to acquire these skills. Doctors and nurses usually rely on them to ensure that a medical office runs smoothly. Really, it’s not a stretch to say Medical Assistants wear many hats.
If you’ve ever considered a career in Medical Assisting, and you’re curious about the training requirements, we hope this guide will serve as an invaluable resource to your career planning objectives. Below you’ll find a wealth of information about how to start your Medical Assisting career.
Medical Assisting Vs. Other Healthcare Careers
Medical Assistants are sometimes confused with other careers in healthcare. To provide additional clarity on what Medical Assistants do versus other healthcare careers, we invite you to explore some of the following career-comparison guides for Medical Assisting:
- Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Office Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Health Information Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Surgical Technologist
What Does a Medical Assistant Do?
Medical Assistants are often the main point of contact for patients. They typically greet visitors, schedule appointments, and assist the physician. As such, they are usually the first and last face a patient sees during their doctor’s visit.
How Medical Assistants work with patients will vary depending on the environment. Their responsibilities will largely depend on the setup and size of the facility.
Here are just some of the duties they perform while on the job.
Administrative tasks may include:
- Greeting patients and answering telephones
- Booking and canceling appointments
- Filing medical paperwork and updating patient charts
- Liaising with laboratories and insurance companies
- Arranging hospital visits and admissions
- Ordering office and medical supplies
- Overseeing billing and bookkeeping
- Explaining medical procedures to patients
- Prepping patients for examination
- Sterilizing medical equipment
- Assisting physicians
- Taking blood samples and giving injections
- Performing diagnostic and laboratory tests
- Carrying out electrocardiograms (ECGs)
- Removing sutures and changing dressings
*Clinical duties vary according to state law
(Related: To learn more, click here for our in-depth review of Medical Assisting Duties & Responsibilities)
What is the Role of a Medical Assistant?
Without a doubt, Medical Assistants play an integral role in the healthcare team. Since they are responsible for several administrative tasks, it’s important that MAs are organized, detail-oriented, and capable of securing confidential information. In the office, they may be tasked with everything from answering phones to coding insurance forms, updating medical records, and scheduling appointments.
Teamwork is another important aspect of an MA’s job, as some of their tasks are performed with coordination from the entire front office. Medical Assistants help their patients by preparing them for physician check-ups and examinations. A friendly, accommodating, and genuine nature helps them build stronger connections with their patients. These are essential qualities for Medical Assistants since many of their patients could feel nervous or anxious about seeing their doctor. The best Medical Assistants will always strive to establish trust and build rapport with patients.
In order to thrive as a Medical Assistant, you should enjoy working in a “helping” role. On a daily basis, you will provide hands-on assistance to patients of all ages and all walks of life. Medical Assistants are responsible for performing basic diagnostic procedures. This can include tasks such as measuring blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and height & weight measurements.
Strong communication skills are also extremely important in this role, as Medical Assistants may be responsible for explaining treatment procedures to patients and answering basic questions. The ability to communicate clearly is especially important when you realize that Medical Assistants work closely with physicians, helping them during physical exams and acting as their “right hand.”
What Qualities Should a Medical Assistant Possess?
To become a Medical Assistant, you should be:
- Personable and friendly, to put patients at ease.
- Attentive, in order to acquire important medical information from patients.
- Articulate, so that you interact effectively with patients.
- Trustworthy, as you will be entrusted with confidential medical information.
- Respectful, since you will work with a variety of patients and healthcare professionals.
- Neat and tidy, to keep your medical office running smoothly.
- Accurate and detail-oriented, as MAs are often required to multitask.
- Able to take initiative and work independently when necessary.
What are the Requirements to Become a Medical Assistant?
In the U.S., formal Medical Assistant training is not required by law. However, many employers will only consider applicants with training to minimize risk.
As a Medical Assistant, formal training also minimizes the risk to your patients and yourself.
Generally speaking, Medical Assistant diploma programs can be completed in a year or less. For instance, the Medical Assisting program at Unitek College can be completed in as little as 9 months.
Furthermore, Medical Assistant training may likely increase your chances of finding a job. Healthcare establishments typically want to employ the most qualified individuals, which is why they would prefer to hire MAs with formal training or certification. In this increasingly competitive field, formal MA training can better prepare you for your job and lead to greater job opportunities throughout your career.
According to an article by eMedicalAssistants, there are several benefits when it comes to MA certification. These may include the following:
- Better overall job opportunities
- Increased wages or greater salary
- More opportunities for advancement
Also, certified Medical Assistants are usually paid more than their non-certified counterparts. Specifically, MA certification could lead to more attractive starting salaries and/or better yearly pay increases.
There are numerous colleges, universities, and technical schools that provide Medical Assistant training. The curriculums usually include a combination of on-campus instruction as well as online or hybrid classes. Additionally, some programs may offer classes in the day, afternoon, or evening hours.
After completing a formal training program, Medical Assistants have the option to seek certification or directly enter the field. Regardless, an MA program will provide students with the tools they need to succeed.
What is the Primary Path Taken for Medical Assisting?
The steps to becoming a Certified Medical Assistant typically depend on your location and personal goals. While there are numerous paths one could take, generally speaking, potential MAs often complete a Medical Assistant program before seeking certification. It’s important to note that certification is not always a requirement for employment.
In some physicians’ offices or clinics, Medical Assistants may receive informal, “on-the-job” training and learn about the profession as they see patients. However, many employers do prefer Medical Assistants who receive a formal education, be it through a certificate, diploma, or associate degree program.
How Long is Medical Assistant Training?
Higher education and medical training can put large demands on your time as well as your physical and mental energy.
In many cases, a student’s Medical Assistant training can be completed within the span of a year. Having said that, the timeline is dependent on the type of education you receive. For instance, two common routes are an associate degree or diploma program.
Option 1: Medical Assisting Associate Degree
If you’d like to build on your education in the future, then an associate degree might be a solid option for you. You can typically earn a Medical Assistant degree from a community college or a university anywhere between 18 to 24 months.
An associate degree in Medical Assisting requires more credits and time than a diploma program. It can lay the groundwork for a higher-level degree, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree in healthcare management. Aside from general education courses, an associate degree program will feature a variety of healthcare classes. They typically include subjects like anatomy and physiology, medical coding, clinical procedures, medical law and ethics, and medical office safety.
After earning this degree, you might find a career in one of the following occupations:
- Administrative Medical Assisting
- Clinical Medical Assisting
- Podiatric Medical Assistants
- Ophthalmic Medical Assistants
- Optometric Assistants
Option 2: Medical Assisting Diploma Program
If you don’t want to spend years in school, then a Medical Assistant diploma program might be the ideal choice for you. It can enhance the skill set of someone who already works in healthcare and wants to create new opportunities for their future. Unlike a degree program, your coursework will not include general education courses.
The curriculum for these programs tends to focus on Medical Assistant tasks. This is why they typically take much less time to complete. Diploma (or certificate) programs can be found at career or vocational colleges. They offer courses that are similar to those in an associate-degree program. If you choose a diploma program, you can expect to study subjects like anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, office management, and medical law and ethics.
Medical Assistant programs can vary in coursework and curriculum but if you’re thinking of enrolling in one of these programs, you should look for schools that are best equipped to prepare you for real-world experience. The Medical Assistant program at Unitek College, for example, prepares students for an extensive mix of Medical Assisting functions through a variety of classroom modules. Students also attend an externship to prepare them for their MA career, as they are able to practice in a clinical setting with an actual physician.
What to Consider When Choosing a Medical Assisting Program
Prospective students may value different things in a formal MA program. Some students may feel that a close student-to-teacher ratio is vital to their success in the classroom, while others may place greater value in the number of clinical hours spent with patients. Take a moment to consider what is important to you and ask the right questions when meeting with admissions representatives.
While there are numerous schools that offer Medical Assistant programs, you’ll want to be selective in your decision-making process. You can use several resources to help you compile a list of possible schools, such as the internet, the library, nearby colleges, or word of mouth. Once you have your list, the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) suggests that you thoroughly investigate each program before taking any action.
You can typically do this by poring through the institution’s website or contacting the program director with a few questions. On the AAMA’s website, they list some sample questions that you might want to ask:
- What are the tuition costs and financial aid options?
- What are the academic prerequisites?
- How long does it take to complete the program?
- What specific topics are covered?
- What does the practicum involve?
- What percent of the program’s students/graduates pass the CMA (AAMA) Exam?
- Will you contact the AAMA Certification Department and give them permission to share your exam pass rates with me?
After completing your Medical Assistant program, it’s time to apply for jobs; this can cause anxiety for some graduates. However, one of the best aspects of attending a good MA program is the access to a career services team.
Students at these colleges are often given access to a career services team that can help prepare them for a competitive job market. In fact, the best Medical Assisting programs understand this need and will assign well-qualified career coaches to each of their students. An experienced career coach can provide you feedback on your resume, cover letter, and other application materials to increase their likelihood of finding employment after graduation.
Before enrolling with any Medical Assistant school, you should inquire if they have an individual, team, or department whose job it is to offer career guidance or support, post-graduation. Together with a career coach, you can develop job search strategies that will help you target the best facilities and lead you toward the MA jobs you desire.
Again, when selecting the right program, it’s vital that you meet with admissions representatives and possibly even MA students to ensure that the school is a good fit.
How to Become a Medical Assistant?
We understand that it can be difficult to make a career change. We’ve outlined the following steps to help you get started!
Step 1: Do Your Research
First thing’s first: familiarize yourself with a Medical Assistant’s role, job duties, career outlook, etc. It’s important to discern whether this career will suit your needs as well as your limitations. For instance, many Medical Assistants spend hours on their feet. If you want to help others and you do not want a desk job, it’s worth noting that Medical Assistants can work in a variety of environments (more on that in the section “Where Do MAs Work?”)
To succeed as a Medical Assistant, you should possess strong organizational skills, an interest in healthcare, and a genuine love for people from all walks of life. A Medical Assistant’s day can be fast-paced and varied, which is great for those who crave stimulation.
Step 2: Pick an Medical Assisting Program
When searching for Medical Assistant schools, it’s important to consider several factors: cost, location, and program length are three essential ones. It’s equally important to consider if you can alter your schedule to meet the program’s requirements. If, for example, you require a shorter timeline, Unitek’s 9-month program may be a great choice for you. Here are some of the courses that the program offers:
- Introduction to Medical Assisting & Medical Law
- Medical Administration
- Diagnostic Imaging
- Patient Assessment
- Stages of Life: Pediatrics, Ob/Gyn, Geriatrics
During the program, students gain critical knowledge through professional lectures as well as hands-on exercises. Simulation training, lab work, and a supervised externship all serve to give our students a dynamic, well-rounded experience.
Step 3: Graduate and Seek Employment
The ultimate goal of any MA program is to prepare students for entry-level employment as Medical Assistants. It should also serve as a stepping stone on your career path, and provide you with rich experiences as well as excellent networking opportunities.
Graduates of an MA program may be qualified to take several certification exams. These include the NCCT exam for the National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) credential and the American Medical Technologists (AMT) to earn the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) credential.
While such credentials are not a graduation requirement, they may be of value depending on your career goals. The faculty members of your MA school should make themselves available to advise their students on how to prepare for these certifications.
Where Do Medical Assistants Work?
Medical Assistants often work with doctors and nurses while performing a variety of tasks. They can also work alongside nurses and physician’s assistants. In some cases, they might even work with social workers and hospital administrators to provide the community with superior healthcare services.
One moment you could be removing stitches on a patient, and in the next, you might be taking an EKG or updating charts. Though they can find employment in various settings, Medical Assistants typically work in one of the following facilities:
- Physician offices
- Nursing homes
- Private health care facilities
- Industrial firms requiring health care personnel
- Hospital clinics
- Health industry providers
- Independent clinics
- Private duty
According to Accredited Schools Online, “Medical Assistants have enormous career potential within the field of Medical Assisting. They can choose to specialize in almost any area of medicine, assisting physicians and other healthcare personnel in clinics, hospitals, private offices, and more.”
The Benefits of Medical Assisting
Before making the personal investment in a formal Medical Assisting education, it’s important to consider the most rewarding duties of an MA. As you dig deeper into this career, you’ll begin to understand the many benefits of working in a profession that allows for flexibility, mobility, and hands-on patient interaction.
One of the most rewarding aspects of a Medical Assisting career is the amount of time that Medical Assistants enjoy working directly with patients. Some physicians might feel that, because of their workload, they are unable to spend as much time as they’d like interacting with their patients. Medical Assistants have the luxury of spending more time with patients—preparing them for exams, both emotionally and physically—while assisting the doctor during various examinations.
Another rewarding aspect of Medical Assisting is the ability to advance within the profession, carving out a specialty within areas like women’s health, pediatrics, or several others. In addition, Medical Assisting might be a wise choice for those who are interested in medical school but would like to gain firsthand experience before they apply.
Medical Assistant Salaries
How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?
Medical Assistant salaries often vary depending on the location and the employer. In the United States, the cost of living tends to differ from state to state, not to mention from city to city. If you live in the suburbs and commute to a city, that statement might be as tangible as your gas bill.
(Related: Click here to explore our list of the highest paying cities for Medical Assistants)
Salary is always important to consider when you change careers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for Medical Assistants was about $37,000 as of May 2020. They also report that the highest 10 percent could earn up to $50,580 or more annually.
Highest Paying Industries for Medical Assistants
As of May 2020, here are the highest paying industries for Medical Assistants.
|Industry||Average Hourly Pay||Average Salary|
|Outpatient Care Centers||$20.35||$42,330|
|Offices of Other Health Practitioners||$15.97||$33,210|
|Retirement Communities & Assisted Living Facilities||$14.84||$30,870|
Highest Paying States for Medical Assistants
Though Medical Assistants can find employment anywhere in the country, there are some states with more opportunities than others. Currently, the highest-paying states for Medical Assistants are Alaska, Washington (State), Washington D.C., Massachusetts, and Minnesota.
Here’s the breakdown by location and average salary:
|State||Average Hourly Pay||Average Salary|
Highest Paying Cities for Medical Assistants
Now that we’ve covered the top states, let’s delve into the U.S. cities with the best salaries for Medical Assistants.
|City||Average Hourly Pay||Average Salary|
|Santa Rosa, CA||$25.25||$52,520|
|Santa Clara, CA||$23.57||$49,020|
It’s also important to note that some Medical Assistants use their training to apply to nursing school. On average, licensed vocational nurses and registered nurses receive higher salaries than an Medical Assistant. Of course, a career in nursing also requires more training.
What is the Job Outlook for Medical Assistants?
According to the BLS, employment of Medical Assistants is projected to grow 18 percent by 2030, which is higher than average when compared to other occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has linked this demand to the aging baby-boomer population. As they head toward retirement, their needs for preventive medicine will likely increase at a steady rate.
To keep up with the demand, physicians will need to hire more healthcare personnel to perform routine administrative and clinical duties. A larger team would allow physicians to see a greater number of patients and improve the overall health of the community.
Important Factors to Consider for a Medical Assisting Career
If you are considering a career as a Medical Assistant, you might be wondering what criteria you should use when choosing a Medical Assistant program. While it’s important to do your research, it’s also important to consider the type of learner you are, what strengths or weaknesses you may have, etc. Location or time constraints are other factors to consider when it comes to Medical Assistant training.
Is Becoming a Medical Assistant Hard?
Considering your natural gifts and aptitudes is important, as well as considering your personality type, interests, and motivations. If you have a strong desire to serve individuals in your community, have a basic aptitude in the sciences, and possess the ability to work in fast-paced environments, you will likely have the necessary qualifications to thrive in a Medical Assisting career.
Additionally, one of the best ways to understand the career’s demands is to talk to professionals working in the field. You should also research Medical Assisting programs near you to find more specific information.
Of course, it’s important to ask questions before pursuing a new career. They might be geared toward a job’s outlook, work tasks, and opportunities for advancement. It is also important to determine the hours or time commitment that employers expect in any given profession. Because work/life balance can contribute to your overall job satisfaction, the question surrounding hours should be given due consideration.
What Hours Do Medical Assistants Work?
Most medical clinics operate on a regular 8:00 am to 5:00 pm timetable, although this can vary depending on the type of facility. For instance, Medical Assistants who work in elderly care centers or hospitals will most likely be required to work shifts outside of regular business hours. If you are not open to working outside of a regular business day, you may want to pursue employment at a medical clinic or physician’s office.
Medical Assisting Program Enrollment Requirements
If you want to become a Medical Assistant, you should follow your dream. Some schools might have stricter enrollment requirements, but there are also those that don’t; pick the program that is right for you and best suits your situation. To give you a better idea, here are the bulk of Unitek’s enrollment requirements for the MA program:
- Career planning session and admissions interview
- Submit proof of high school education or equivalent
- Entrance assessment test
- Admissions application
- Enrollment agreement
- Financing arrangements and, if applicable, all documents needed to obtain an official award letter for Federal Student Aid
Helpful Tips from a New Medical Assistant
These useful tips come directly from Taylor at The PA Platform. She’s a practicing Medical Assistant who wants to help you do well, too!
+ Know your provider: Having worked with the same physician assistant (PA) for several years, Taylor has gained intimate knowledge of how she practices. This familiarity allows you to stay on schedule and run a “smooth clinic.”
+ Always be willing to pitch in: When Taylor has downtime, she helps the other providers as much as possible. It’s this type of group effort that makes “the dream work.”
+ Use your time management skills: This particular MA makes the most of quiet mornings by keeping up with her PA’s needs, ensuring patients are scheduled correctly, and checking that exam rooms are fully stocked.
+ Take advantage of learning opportunities: At the practice where Taylor works, they were given the opportunity to learn about various procedures. These include laser and photodynamic therapy as well as chemical peels.
+ Don’t think that you are above or below any task: Her simplest task is assembling shave biopsy kits. Now, she appreciates her contribution to this process: “Without these kits, the providers would be unable to do one of the most important procedures that allow for the diagnosis of skin cancer.”
+ Don’t let one patient ruin your day: Sometimes MAs will have patients who require more time or effort. This might throw off your schedule, but Taylor suggests that you breathe deeply and try to take your day one patient at a time.
+ Be organized: It’s important to use both organizational and time management skills.
+ Evaluate often: Taylor also suggests that you speak up if there’s room for improvement. Sometimes, she and her PA talk after a busy day to evaluate what’s working and what could use some attention.
+ Always be attentive: One way you can be an incredible asset to the team is by thinking a step ahead of your provider.
+ Have a good attitude: Even just a simple smile or a friendly demeanor can brighten someone else’s day. Plus, a positive attitude can create more unity and fuel teamwork.
Why Should You Pursue Medical Assistant Training?
MAs are vital members of the healthcare team, and their job opportunities are only expected to increase. As previously stated, employment of Medical Assistants is projected to grow 29 percent by 2026. This growth will likely promise a high degree of job security.
Furthermore, technology is changing how healthcare is delivered and Medical Assistants are playing an increasingly important role in this transition. MAs receive valuable exposure and experience. They work alongside doctors and nurses and make a difference in the lives of their patients. At the end of the day, this career is all about helping others.
If you’d like to start a healthcare career without spending years in school, you should consider taking the next step by enrolling in a Medical Assistant program near you!