How to Become a Medical Assistant
March 19, 2021
Becoming a certified medical assistant is a wonderful way to start a healthcare career that offers attractive salaries, is in high demand, has growth potential, and makes a true difference in the lives of patients.
In this comprehensive guide, learn step-by-step everything you need to know about getting into the medical assisting field and discover important details regarding education, certification, and salary expectations.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Medical Assistant?
- Medical Assistants Skills
- Medical Assistants Compared to Other Allied Health Jobs
- Why Become a Medical Assistant
- How Much Does It Cost to Become an MA?
- Do You Need a Degree to Be a Medical Assistant?
- How to Become a Medical Assistant
- Medical Assistant Certifications
- How COVID Affects Medical Assistants
- Medical Assistant Career Advancement
- Start Your Career as a Medical Assistant
What Is a Medical Assistant?
Whether it’s in a fast-paced urgent care clinic or at the front desk of a doctor’s practice, medical assistants (MAs) are essential for ensuring everything runs smoothly and allowing the medical team to help more patients.
Medical assistants are trained to perform both clinical and administrative duties, making their career options very diverse. While MAs are generally expected to be prepared to do both, they can specialize in either clinical or administrative medical assisting, based on their employer’s needs.
Clinical Medical Assistant
The daily tasks of a medical assistant generally vary depending on whether they are working in a hospital or a clinic, as well as on their employer, location, specialty, and state laws.
In a clinical setting, MAs often provide more one-on-one care and are responsible for a wide array of tasks, from welcoming patients to removing sutures. Medical assistants working in outpatient clinics are, to a large extent, focused on a specific aspect of the medical field, such as gynecology, dentistry, or dermatology.
Compared to clinics, hospitals are typically more fast-paced. A medical assistant working in this setting will have many of the same clinical duties, however, their main responsibilities will often depend on the needs of their specific unit.
Overall, the clinical duties of a medical assistant may include:
- Providing general patient care
- Helping patients understand medical treatments
- Preparing patients for examinations/procedures
- Checking vital signs
- Setting up and performing electrocardiograms (EKG)
- Drawing blood and collecting lab specimens
- Giving injections and vaccinations
- Changing patient dressings
- Preparing and administering medications (under the direction of a physician)
Administrative Medical Assistant
Medical assistants are vital for ensuring that hospitals and clinics run as efficiently and effectively as possible. They play many different roles in their jobs and understand that caring for patients is just as important as being responsible for their medical records.
In fact, one of the lesser-known facts about medical assistants is that their job duties sometimes include the analysis of data, billing, and insurance information. Even more, according to overall healthcare trends, MAs will be at the front lines of the big data revolution, helping researchers and hospital administrators gather data and insights into how to make healthcare more efficient.
Some other administrative tasks commonly performed by MAs are:
- Greeting patients
- Answering phone calls
- Entering and updating patients records
- Scheduling and confirming appointments
- Filling out insurance forms
- Arranging for lab services and hospital admissions
Medical Assistants Skills
Because MAs play a hand in both patient care and office duties, they need to have a wide set of skills. Above all, these professionals should be compassionate, empathetic, versatile, and able to understand and take direction from doctors when needed. In addition, an excellent medical assistant has exceptional communication skills, high computer literacy, and good problem-solving skills.
Medical Assistants Compared to Other Allied Health Jobs
Allied healthcare is a very diverse field that offers great opportunities for everyone. If you want to help and work in close contact with patients, however, the number of career options can feel overwhelming.
Certified nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses are two roles that – just like medical assistants – perform essential jobs in healthcare. Each of these professionals, however, has distinct responsibilities and career paths.
Medical Assistants vs CNAs
Because both medical assistants and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are critical for supporting patients, in many ways, they are not all that different. Both roles are tasked with helping out with basic patient care, such as measuring vital signs.
The biggest difference between MAs and CNAs is their ability to handle administration and desk duties. CNAs are often referred to as “nursing aides” and their tasks include direct, hands-on patient care and support. As part of their day-to-day work tasks, CNAs might bathe and feed patients, monitor blood pressure, and assist with physical activities.
Medical Assistants vs LPNs
While some of the daily tasks of MAs may overlap with those of a licensed practical nurse (LPN), MAs and LPNs have some notable differences, mainly in regards to their scope of practice.
While both roles involve working directly with patients, an LPN has the chief responsibility of providing a more hands-on treatment. A licensed practical nurse, for instance, might perform CPR, provide gastrostomy tube care, and communicate with patients and their family members.
Why Become a Medical Assistant
Many become interested in allied healthcare because they want to do work that helps others and they want to enter the field quickly. Medical assistants are one of the many allied health professionals that are not required to possess a medical school degree to start practicing.
One of the biggest benefits of becoming an MA is that it offers a fast – and affordable – entry point into healthcare. There are, however, plenty of other great reasons to become a medical assistant, including job flexibility and security, competitive salaries, and a good work-life balance.
Medical Assistant Salaries
The median annual wage for an MA professional in the US is $34,800, making medical assisting one of the top-paying allied health careers. Medical assistants at the lower end of the pay scale receive, on average, $25,820. Entry-level MAs – with less than 1 year of experience – can expect to earn about $25,000 annually.
It is also sensible to note that medical assistant salaries can vary depending on certification and training, experience, workplace, and location. MAs in outpatient care centers, for instance, earn approximately $36,810 yearly, while professionals employed in chiropractors’ offices receive about $30,870.
Medical Assistant Career Outlook
With projected job growth of 19% by 2029, the MA career opportunities in the US are more than promising. Determining where you’ll find the best career opportunities, though, can be a challenging task. Overall, based on salary outlook and the proportion of MAs in the workforce, the states of California, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Arizona are good choices to consider.
With an expected job growth rate of 21% from 2019-2029, and more than 2,000 medical care facilities, pursuing an MA career in New Jersey can be another excellent choice for those looking to join the healthcare sector. While MA salaries in NJ can differ based on location, its proximity to New York makes it a great place to pursue MA training and ensure an array of job options in the future.
How Much Does It Cost to Become an MA?
Medical assistant training programs can vary in time and costs. Depending on the school you choose, tuition fees typically range from $10,000 to $20,000. Upon completion, graduates of most MA programs are eligible to take a certification exam.
While not mandatory, certified medical assistants are generally preferred in the job market. Certification exam costs are typically set by the certification body and may vary. Becoming a Certified Medical Assistant through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), for example, costs $125. Graduates of CAAHEP or ABHES accredited programs are eligible to take the exam.
Do You Need a Degree to Be a Medical Assistant?
Medical assisting is an excellent path for those looking for medical jobs that don’t require a degree to get started. While formal education may not be necessary, it is important to note that many employers expect medical assistant job candidates to have completed a training program.
How to Become a Medical Assistant
The vast majority of MA professionals receive formal training from a reputable one- or two-year certificate or associate degree program before entering the field.
Medical assisting training programs include coursework that typically covers anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, office administration, medical billing, patient care, electrocardiography, and phlebotomy. Depending on the program, students may also learn about pharmacology, medical law and ethics, lab procedures, and clinical and diagnostic procedures.
Choose an Accredited Medical Assistant Training Program
Picking a training program where you can thrive and enjoy your path to becoming a medical assistant is a big decision. With so many programs to choose from, aspiring MAs may feel a bit overwhelmed.
When selecting a medical assistant program, it’s important to evaluate multiple factors, such as the school’s location, institutional accreditation, classroom and lab environments, and student services. Visiting the campus, as well as meeting with students and admissions team members, is a great way to get a first-hand sense of what to expect.
Cover the Medical Assistant Requirements
The minimum admission requirement for most medical assistant training programs is a high school diploma (or equivalent). Some programs may also require you to pass an entrance exam.
Also, future medical assistants must be capable of certain technical and health standards. These include possessing sufficient motor and eye/hand coordination skills, being able to react quickly to verbal instructions and patient needs, and being able to meet the demands of the position (e.g. handling stressful situations).
Explore Financial Aid Requirements and Benefits
Many healthcare students receive some form of financial help during their training. Federal Student Aid, for example, can be a suitable option for aspiring MA students looking to fund their education. Federal financial aid is strictly need-based and applying for it is a straightforward process. Note that your application must be completed no later than a week before your enrollment.
Enroll in an MA Certificate Program
Before you get enrolled in medical assistant school you may be required to attend an in-person or virtual meeting. Most schools also require completing an interview with a school official.
Students who successfully meet all admission requirements may be permitted to enroll on the same day.
Attend Your Orientation
Attending orientation is extremely important for starting your MA training on the right foot. It provides an opportunity to learn about school policies and procedures, as well as get answers to any questions you may have regarding your upcoming training.
How Long Does It Take to Become an MA
A career as a medical assistant is a wonderful way to find steady employment in the healthcare field without the need to commit to years of education. In fact, many medical assisting programs offer allied health certificates that can be obtained in 12 months or less.
Complete Your Clinical Internship
Clinical internships are a key part of any educational program as they provide invaluable hands-on practical experience and let students start building up their professional network. Internships can be completed in hospitals, physician’s offices, or other healthcare facilities. The clinical internship is typically the final component of your training program.
Medical Assistant Certifications
While certification may not be required in all states, becoming certified and completing MA training could be well worth it. It shows prospective employers that you have the appropriate training and possess the right skills set to deliver high-quality patient care and medical office support. This in turn can lead to better medical assistant job opportunities and higher pay.
In New Jersey, some of the most widely recognized medical assistant certifications include:
- Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)
- Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)
- National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)
Keeping up with certification renewals is strongly advised. In many cases, certification renewal fees are covered by the employer. Whether it’s taking a medical assistant exam or completing continuing education, renewals are important for demonstrating that you are current on the latest knowledge and regulations regarding clinical and administrative procedures.
How COVID Affects Medical Assistants
Working in the challenging environment of COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the well-being and mental health of all medical professionals.
While the efforts of doctors and nurses are in the spotlight, infected patients undergo a number of tests, treatments, and procedures, interacting with a range of allied healthcare workers. These allied health professionals have been working at the frontline of the pandemic alongside doctors and nurses to help save lives and control the spread of the coronavirus.
Because of their day-to-day responsibilities, medical assistants are among the healthcare workers who regularly come in contact with infected patients, as well as patients who may have been exposed to the virus.
COVID-19 has affected the MA community in many different ways. Medical assistants have become an integral part of managing the overwhelming hospital workload by undertaking doctors’ and nurses’ tasks. This has led to an increased demand for qualified medical assistants in all healthcare environments.
Medical Assistant Career Advancement
The job of a certified medical assistant has huge growth potential. MAs can choose to explore the steps up the career ladder and advance their education in related healthcare careers. Viable options include pursuing training in nursing, sonography, radiography, or a number of other fields.
Experienced medical assistants can also further their careers by taking on a management or supervisory role.