Medical assistants are the infantry of the health care world, the crucial boots-on-the-ground engaged in the day-to-day business of patient care. In hospitals, clinics, and private practices, medical assistants perform a wide variety of vital administrative and clinical duties, from taking patient histories and scheduling appointments, to measuring vital signs and administering injections.
While no postsecondary education or accreditation beyond on-the-job training is required to become a medical assistant, the most competitive candidates for the best jobs are generally graduates of one- and two-year certificate and associate degree programs. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data suggests that, as hospitals and clinics have moved to adopt computer-based electronic health records, demand for well-trained medical assistants with certificates and degrees has been on the rise.
What does a medical assistant do?
Medical assistants are multitasking individuals that work in fast-paced clinical environments. For this reason, it can be said that no two days are the same for these professionals. One day might be spent primarily answering phones and scheduling appointments, while the next day may be chock-full of collecting specimens, performing urinalyses, and drawing blood.
It is the responsibility of the medical assistant to be engaged in patient care, dedicated to the effective functioning of the medical facility, and adaptable to changes in facility protocol or physician needs. Medical assistant schools help prepare graduates to work in a variety of medical specialties, so the job duties may be different in any given facility. Overall, however, medical assistants are typically responsible for the completion of both administrative and clinical tasks.
Administrative duties can include:
- Scheduling and coordinating patient appointments
- Setting up referrals for surgical procedures or laboratory tests
- Entering and updating patient information in EMR systems
- Verifying insurance coverage for procedures and medications
- Explaining medical procedures to patients
- Sending prescriptions to pharmacies
Clinical duties can include:
- Taking vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, respirations)
- Updating patient medical and family history (weight changes, surgeries, medications)
- Preparing instruments during clinical procedures and sealing specimen samples
- Wound care (bandaging, removal of bandages, cleansing, medicating)
- Immunization administration (Hepatitis B, seasonal influenza, H1N1, varicella)
- Drawing blood samples and administering medicine
- Sterilizing exam rooms
Medical assistants work wherever there is a patient in need of diagnostic care, preventative care, or treatment. Because medical assistants have skills in both administrative and clinical tasks, they are qualified to work in the following health care settings:
- Family medical centers
- Group practices
- Multi-specialty medical clinics
- Public or private hospitals
- Specialty medical clinics
- Outpatient care centers
- Urgent care centers
How to become a medical assistant
According to the BLS, in most states, anyone who is 18 years old and holds a high school diploma, or its equivalent, can apply for a medical assistant position. However, the BLS also notes that coursework in the sciences, specifically biology, chemistry and anatomy, is the best way to forge the kind of academic foundation that employers in the health care sector are looking for.
Because of the hands-on involvement with patients, most employers want medical assistants who have the right combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job experience, the BLS reports. These qualifications can be attained through a one- or two-year diploma or associate degree at a wide array of community colleges and vocational/technical schools. Some of the more competitive two-year associate degree programs in medical assistance request a pre-collegiate exam, such as the SAT or ACT, but many do not. A high school background in the biological sciences and a decent GPA are often the only prerequisites needed to pursue a medical assistant associate degree.
These associate degree programs include classes that cover the administrative and clinical aspects of medical assistance, including:
- Anatomy, physiology, pathology, and pharmacology
- Laboratory techniques and diagnostic procedures
- Insurance claim coding and processing
- Medical terminology, law, and ethics
The most up-to-date curricula also feature training in the administration of computer-based electronic health records (EHRs). All accredited medical assistant licensing degree programs provide internship opportunities for the on-site training necessary to obtain formal certification from a recognized profession organization like the American Association of Medical Assistants.
Medical assistant certification
Some states require medical assistants to be certified and/or successfully complete an exam in order to attend to clinical tasks, such as taking x-rays and administering injections. And in most cases, certification is generally preferred for the best positions. The BLS lists five types of formal accreditation for medical assistants that are recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies:
- Certified Medical Assistant, from the American Association of Medical Assistants
- Registered Medical Assistant, from American Medical Technologists
- National Certified Medical Assistant, from the National Center for Competency Training
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, from the National Healthcareer Association
- Certified Medical Administrative Assistant, from the National Healthcareer Association
Requirements for certification include some combination of a one- or two-year postsecondary diploma or associate degree, on-the-job training or internships, and passing an exam administered by the organization.
Employers may also prefer candidates with training and certification to fill higher paying medical assistant positions.
Career and salary information
As with most professions, the salary range for medical assistants can vary based on their level of experience and education, whether they are credentialed, their skill level, and their geographic location.
According to the BLS, the mean annual wage for medical assistants working in the U.S. as of May 2014 was $31,220. However, their wages varied from $21,540 or less for the lowest 10 percent of earners up to $42,760 or more for those earning the highest 10 percent. The five highest-paying areas in the country (based on mean annual wages) are:
- Washington, D.C.: $39,860 per year
- Alaska: $39,680 per year
- Massachusetts: $37,640 per year
- Washington: $35,850 per year
- Connecticut: $35,360 per year
As with many health care professions, medical assistants are in high demand. The BLS reports that employment in the field should increase 23 percent from 2014 to 2024, in which time 138,900 new positions could become available. Driving this faster-than-average growth is an aging baby boomer population who are taking more advantage of health care services in an effort to stay healthy and mobile. As a result, doctors and other high-level practitioners will need to hire more medical assistants to help with both administrative and clinical tasks, enabling the doctors to spend more time with patients.
Other factors impacting demand include changes in federal law allowing more people to have access to health care services, and policy changes requiring skilled medical workers to help document information and health details through the use of electronic health records (EHRs).
- American Association of Medical Assistants, "What is a Medical Assistant?", http://www.aama-ntl.org/medical-assisting/what-is-a-medical-assistant#.VEXOQOddQhc
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, http://www.bls.gov/OES/current/oes319092.htm
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, National Healthcare Association, http://www.nhanow.com/clinical-medical-assistant.aspx
- Medical Administrative Assistant Certification, National Healthcare Association, http://www.nhanow.com/medical-admin-assistant.aspx