In general, no formal education is required to become a medical assistant. Most people in the industry have a high school diploma and learn what they need to know on the job. Here is a brief guide to entering this fast-growing career field and become a medical assistant.
At minimum, you should have a high school diploma. If you know you want to go into this field, be certain to take classes in chemistry, biology, and anatomy. To improve your chances of being successful in the field, it is a good idea to complete a formal program even if your state doesn’t require it. These programs are available at community colleges, technical schools, and vocational schools and can usually be completed in a year. Some colleges offer two-year programs that lead to an associate’s degree.
Certain states do require medical assistants to pass an exam or graduate from an accredited program before they can do specialized tasks such as taking x-rays or giving shots.
Medical Assistant Training
If getting a formal education is not possible, many medical offices will train you on the job. You will learn medical terminology, how to use medical instruments, patient interaction, and other tasks required to do the job properly. You may also learn how to record patient information and code health records. Depending on how quickly you learn and the skill of your instructor, it can take a few weeks to several months to learn everything you need to know to do your job.
Medical Assistant Certification
For the most part, you do not need to be certified to get a job in the industry. However, there are a number of organizations that offer credentialing. Certification can give you a leg up over the competition when it comes time to look for a job. Some credentialing programs require you to be at least 18 years old, have completed an accredited medical assisting program, and pass a certification exam.
There are four certifications for medical assisting you can obtain:
- The American Association of Medical Assistants – Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)
- American Medical Technologists – Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)
- National Center for Competency Testing – National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)
- National Health Career Association – Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)
More information about these certification programs can be obtained from the certifying agency.
Important Traits of Medical Assistants
Analytical skills: As a medical assistant, you will need to understand how to read and respond to patients’ medical charts. You may also be required to code them so they can be billed out to insurance companies.
Detail oriented: The medical staff will be using the information you obtain from the patient to treat them. Therefore, you must be detailed and accurate when recording information or taking vital signs.
Interpersonal skills: Medical assistants are usually the first person patients’ see when they visit the doctor’s office. Often, these patients are under duress and not at their best. You must be patient, calm, and professional and able to discuss information with them in ways they can understand.
Technical skills: You will be using a variety of medical instruments to do your job. Since you will be using these tools on patients, it is important you know how to use them.
A doctor’s office can get very busy and the majority of physicians, chiropractors, and other medical practitioners hire medical assistants to help them manage their offices. Medical assistants are not the same as physician assistants. Physician assistants diagnose and treat patients just like doctors, but are required do so while being supervised by a licensed physician. Although the duties vary between medical practices, here is a basic description of what medical assistants do.
Medical Assistants Duties
As a medical assistant, you may be called to perform the following duties:
- Obtain patient medical history
- Measure and record patient’s vital signs
- Assist with examinations
- Schedule appointments
- Prepare blood samples for testing
- Administer injections (may require training and certification)
- Take x-rays (may require training and certification)
- Code and submit bills to insurance companies
- Various administrative or clinical tasks
Technology is rapidly changing the way medical assistants do their jobs. Many doctors are using electronic health records to manage patient information, which means medical assistants must learn this software if they want to remain competitive in the industry.
Since medical assistants have access to patient information, they are required to abide by HIPPA laws. They must keep the information confidential and only discuss the patient’s condition with medical personnel, the patient, or other authorized parties.
Clinical Medical Assistants – These medical assistants may perform advanced medical procedures such as removing stitches, taking blood, sterilizing medical equipment, dispose of medical waste, and conduct lab tests. Additional education and state certification may be required to work in this position.
Ophthalmic Medical Assistant – These medical assistants work for eye doctors. Their job duties entail showing patients how to use and care for contact lenses, preparing patients for surgery, answering questions about eye care, and other duties as assigned by their bosses.
Podiatric Medical Assistants – A medical assistant in this field works for a foot doctor. Duties may include taking x-rays of feet, preparing patients for surgery, assisting the doctor during surgery, and speaking to patients about foot care.
The majority (about 50 percent) of medical assistants work in a physician’s office while the rest work in hospitals and clinics. These facilities are generally clean, highly structured, but fast paced. Medical assistants work with the general public, so exposure to infectious diseases like the flu virus is common. In 2010, there were over 527,000 medical assistant jobs.
Typically, medical assistants work full time. Evening and weekend shifts were common, particularly in medical facilities that were open 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Medical Assistant Salary
In 2010, the average wage of medical assistants was $28,860. The top and bottom 10 percent earned $40,190 and $20,810 respectively. The actual salary a person earns will depend on his or her experience, education, place of residence, and the medical facility. Medical assistants who worked for physicians tend to earn more than those that worked for hospitals or clinics.
In general, jobs in the medical industry are expected to grow at a quicker rate than other industries because of the aging Baby Boomer generation. The number of available jobs for medical assistants is expected to increase by 31 percent between 2010 and 2020. Growth will be highest at physician offices. Likely, medical assistants will be hired to replace more expensive staff (like nurses), particularly those in administrative positions. Most medical assistants will work in primary care rather than specialized healthcare like podiatry.
As mentioned before, medical assistants will need to know how to use electronic health records software to remain competitive. Physicians are taking advantage of online services and medical assistants will increasingly be required to use these programs to manage patient information and analyze data.