How to Become a Medical Assistant – MA Schools & Career Outlook

Who is a Medical Assistant and What does He Do?

A medical assistant is the right hand woman or man, for a nurse or physician; this makes their lives as well as those of their patients to be easier. There are various responsibilities and duties that they normally perform, both administrative and clinical, and they also help patients to feel at ease by answering any questions they might have. However, keep in mind that their responsibilities and duties normally vary depending on the setting.

As already mentioned earlier, the duties and responsibilities of medical assistants usually vary depending on the setting. When in a hospital setting their work is to attend to the needs of a specific unit they are working for. Some of the things they might do is filling out patient forms, handling billing and performing common receptionist type of duties. Their work responsibilities are both lab and patient-based, where they can perform activities like administering immunizations, performing ECG readings, prescription or medication refills and examining samples collected from patients. They run errands for the doctors or physicians within a hospital or health center setting. They can work in a clinic, in a private practice or in an ambulatory care. In all of those settings, their duties and responsibilities will vary.

In a Clinic

When a medical assistant works in a clinic setting, s/he doesn’t work for a particular unit the way a hospital medical assistant does. Their work in the clinic setting is therefore mo general or comprehensive. The duties of a medical assistant in this setting involves a blend of administrative and clinical duties that includes greeting patients, answering phone calls, sterilizing medical equipments, changing wound dressing, disposing contaminated supplies and explaining procedures. Other additional duties might include preparing x-rays of patients, taking electrocardiograms, advising patients about special diets or medications, removing stitches and drawing blood. Nurses and doctors highly value the work of medical assistants in the clinic as they help the clinic to run smoothly.

In a Private Setting

When a medical assistant works in a private setting his/her duties and responsibilities is similar to that of an office receptionist and physicians will depend on medical assistants to provide patient care and also make sure that the activities in the office are running smoothly. You should keep in mind that their duties or responsibilities are unique and specific to the private setting they are working for. Medical assistants can also perform basic tests and exams; explain medical information to patients, scheduling appointments and much more.

In an Ambulatory Care

Medical assistants in ambulatory care have very specific duties that entails high-pressure atmosphere. They offer both clerical and clinical support, and should rely on their instincts as well as training to act fast to allow medical technicians to care for patients in an effective and well-timed manner. When a patient visits a hospital or clinic, a medical assistant is the first person they will come in contact with and s/he will help in completing the necessary patient forms, collecting the necessary specimens or samples and performing Point of Care testing.

Generally, the work of medical assistants is to complete clinical and administrative tasks in hospitals and other healthcare facilities as well as offices of doctors. Their duties and responsibilities depend on area of expertise, location and size of the practice.  A summary of their duties typically include:

  • Recording personal information and patient history.
  • Entering patient information into medical records.
  • Measure very important signs like blood pressure.
  • Scheduling patient appointments.
  • Help physicians with patient examinations.
  • Prepare blood samples for lab-tests.
  • Give patients medications or injections as permitted by state law or as directed by the doctor.

When medical assistants record personal information of patients they should always keep it confidential and only discuss it with other medical personnel that are involved in taking care or treating of the patient. The work of medical assistants is being changed by electronic health records (EHRs) where many physicians are now adopting the use of EHRs. Physicians are adopting the electronic health records (EHRs) by moving personal information and history of patients from paper to electronic records. It is therefore important that medical assistant learn and understand how to use the EHR software. Keep in mind that medical assistants are not the same as physician assistants whose work is to diagnose, examine and treat patients under the direction and supervision of a physician.

There are other medical assistants who specialize according to the type of medical office they are working for. For example, optometric and ophthalmic medical assistants help optometrists and ophthalmologists, respectively, to offer eye care. Some of their duties include showing patients how to remove, insert or care for contact lenses. An ophthalmic medical assistant might also help ophthalmologist in surgery. There is also a podiatric medical assistant who works closely with foot doctors or podiatrists and their work is to cast the feet, expose, preparing x-rays and also help podiatrists in surgery.

Types of Medical Assistants

A research conducted by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) showed that the most important duties and responsibilities of medical assistants fall in two categories, which include clinical and administrative duties.

Clinical Medical Assistants

MAs are not trained to carry out the same tasks as registered nurses, physicians, surgeons or other advanced healthcare providers. However, MAs education prepares them to perform various basic exams on patients and to carry out certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a physician. According to American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), there are several medical assistant clinical skills and they include:

  • Ensuring patients are ready for examinations. Before the patient is given any medication or is tested the medical assistant will explain to him/her about how the whole process will take place.
  • Recording the medical history of patients. Medical assistants need to document the medical history, current symptoms, risk factors and other related issues of a patient before the lead nurse or doctor arrives. This will help the physician to provide the best solution to the problem.
  • Discussing medical issues with patients as well as their family members or friends. MAs are often called upon to explain to patients or even their relatives about the dietary restrictions, symptom management, patient’s diagnosis, prescribed medication, treatment options and other important matters that closely relate to their condition or recovery.
  • Performing medical procedures like drawing blood, removing sutures and stitches, performing electrocardiogram and replacing wound dressing like casts and bandages.
  • In some cases, MAs might be required to administer medications.

Administrative Medical Assistant

Medical assistants frequently help administrative staffs who are behind the front desk to perform certain duties like:

  • Organizing appointment schedule. Though it depends on their office, MAs are often called upon to schedule appointments, receive phone calls and make sure that the calendar of patient in the facility is up to date and well organized.
  • Entering data of patients. In today’s world, most healthcare facilities usually maintain a network that consists of personal information of patients. In some cases, medical assistants might be required to update patient records and organize files of the facility.
  • Assisting new patients or their relative. MAs can deliver forms that patients submit for them to see a physician and they can also answer any question the patient or their relative might have. Medical assistants might also assist visitor check-ins for existing patients.
  • Communicating with insurance companies. Many offices of physicians, clinics and hospitals typically employ in-house insurance coders or billers to handle complicated insurance demands. In some cases, MAs might be asked to help these people by contacting providers, completing insurance forms and answer any question that patients might have about insurance.

Work Environment of Medical Assistants

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, in the year 2014 there were about 591,300 medical assistants’ jobs. Some of the industries that employed most medical assistants include:

Industry Percentage
Outpatient care centers 7%
Other health practitioners offices 10%
Private, local and state hospitals 15%
Physicians offices 59%

Most medical assistants usually work in offices of physicians, outpatient clinics, hospitals and other healthcare facilities. In the year 2014 the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US found out that more than half of the entire medical assistants worked in offices of physicians. Most medical assistants work fulltime (40-hour per week) while others work holidays, weekends and evenings to cover shifts that are always open in medical facilities. Medical assistants work in a clean environment and they frequently interact with other people and can handle numerous duties at once.

A career as a medical assistant means that you will interact with patients, physicians and other staff in your line of work. It is vital to know what kind of environment you will be getting yourself into when you start practicing. The environment will vary depending on where you work, the type of medical assistant you are and, the scope of work. Remember that the core duties of a clinical medical assistant will revolve around patient care. In that case, the size of the population will also determine the work environment.

Clinical Medical Assistant’s Work Environment

The functions of a clinical medical assistant will incline towards patient care. They work in a clinic or health facility where their main role is to attend to the medical needs of the patient. From generating medical reports, to prescribing drugs to patients, they do it all. They help the doctor to exercise their duties effectively by taking up the usual roles and leaving the complex roles to the physicians. They interact closely with the patients, doctors, and other medical staff within the hospital setting. When patients arrive at a hospital or clinic, they prepare them before they can see the doctor. It may include taking their blood sample so that it can be sent to the laboratory or asking questions that relate to their illness and fill the form.

They also assist doctors in the lab to carry out tests and make the diagnosis. In short, they work in close collaboration with the physician and offer support to enhance the entire process. In the inventory section, they can help to manage the stock of medicine and other medical equipment. They ensure that everything in the clinic or hospital is up to standard, and the patients get the care they deserve. They are mostly on their feet moving from one patient to the other and running regular errands for the doctor.

Administrative Medical Assistant’s Work Environment

The work environment, in this case, will be at the administrative level. You will find many administrative medical assistants at the reception desk of a hospital or clinic. Their role does not require them to be constantly on their feet as they are always on their desk doing some administrative duties such as data entry, welcoming patients and visitors, scheduling appointments with the doctor, answering calls, and billing work among others.

Medical assistants mostly work 40 hours per week in a clean, high traffic, and interactive environment. Some work part-time while others work full-time.

How to Become a Medical Assistant

For one to become a medical assistant there is a long road ahead that will involve formal education and training. You need first to develop the passion for the field of medicine before you can decide to venture in the career as a medical assistant. With the growth of the internet and more medical schools offering online programs, you can use a wide range of avenues to acquire the education qualification part of it. You can take part in online learning, classroom learning or part-time learning in a medical institution. Certification may be essential but not a requirement for one to become a medical assistant. However, it helps improve the chances of securing future employment. Apart from that, it can lead to other careers in the same field such as doctor or physician or nurse.

Education

Most medical assistants normally have a certificate in postsecondary education while others enter the profession with a high school diploma or learn through on-the-job training. In most states, there isn’t any formal educational requirement for one to become a medical assistant but most employers prefer to hire medical assistants who have finished these programs. There are different programs of medical assistants offered in universities, technical schools, community colleges and vocational schools. It will take approximately 1 year for one to complete the program and it can lead to a diploma or certificate. Some programs available at community colleges take 2 years for you to complete it and usually leads to an associate’s degree. Every program has a laboratory and classroom parts that comprise of lessons in medical terminology and anatomy.

There are those medical assistants who have a high school diploma and learn their duties or responsibilities on the job. Individuals in high school who are interested in becoming medical assistants need to take courses in anatomy, biology and chemistry.

Medical Experience Requirements

Most programs whether a certificate, diploma or associate degree will accommodate experience in the form of internships. It gives you the experience you need in the real world to become a medical assistant. It is usually in a hospital, clinic or health center setting where you work side by side with medical professionals. Your duty is to learn from them and put theory into practice. Remember that when in a classroom setting, you will learn some of the things you are supposed to do when practicing as a medical assistant. These are the same things you are required to do when on internships. There will be frequent assessments by your superiors in the institution of learning where they will come by to check your progress. Most employers will hire medical assistants who have hands-on experience in a hospital or clinic setting.

For programs that do not offer such training for do not have it as a requirement to complete the program, you have to look for experience elsewhere. You can engage in volunteer service in a medical facility or seek internships from health centers and hospitals. In this case, there will be no assessment as it is not part of the program. The medical professional who you will be working under will be the one to write you a recommendation which you have to provide to your employer as proof of experience. The experience practicing as a medical assistant will be good for your CV and hence impress the employer.

Important Qualities

For medical assistants to perform their jobs effectively they should equip themselves with several important skills. When medical assistants take certification programs they usually incorporate some important skills into their curriculum like:

Medical Terminology

Medical assistants should have broad working knowledge of common medical terms and names and some of them include:

  • Treatment, therapy procedures and medication prescribed for different medical conditions.
  • Bones, fluids, muscles, organs, and systems that consists of the human anatomy, and Latin prefixes and suffixes relating to the body
  • General causes, signs and symptoms of various physical injuries, ailments, and diseases
  • Viruses, parasites, bacteria and other infection agents that can have an effect on human health
  • Machines, devices and instruments used to monitor, diagnose, and treat patients  

Technical Skills

The basic value of a medical assistant is frequently considered by the number of tests, exams and other medical duties one is able to properly perform. However, there are other extensive procedures and surgeries which will be handled by senior physicians. Some of the technical skills medical assistants should have include:

  • Obtaining samples or drawing blood for testing, and they can also analyze specimens
  • Redressing wounds and replacing sutures
  • The administration of parenteral, oral, rectal and topical medications
  • Performing respiratory tests and conducting electrocardiograms (EKGs)
  • Performing “sterilization” procedures
  • Safe disposal of bodily samples/ fluids, used syringes, and other biomedical materials

Communication Skills

As a medical assistant you need to have good listening skills, be clear, concise and be able to discuss any patient information with physicians or other medical personnel. They should also be able to talk to patients who might be in distress or in pain and help them feel comfortable. Medical assistants should always have good communication skills when carrying out activities like updating physicians about the diagnostic status of their patients, discussing with patients about their current condition, submitting forms to insurance company and much more. Medical assistants are uniquely trained to talk patient’s language and act as an intermediary between busy doctors and patients who are frequently afraid to talk or ask questions.

Office Management Skills

Most hospitals and clinics usually employ medical office administrators to manage daily operations and thus medical assistants need to carry out different duties that help improve efficiency and attend to the needs of patients quickly. In any healthcare facility, there is demand of skills like sending emails, typing, receiving phone calls and creating original documents and that’s why it’s important for a medical assistant to have office management skills. For example, MAs at the office of physicians can be asked to issue reminder calls or schedule appointments for patients, whereas MAs at hospitals help with performing the first diagnostic analysis on new patients and also assist with check-ins of visitors. 

Salary of Medical Assistants

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for medical assistants in May 2015 was $30,590. The median salary can be defined as the wage where half workers in a given occupation earned less than that amount and half earned more. The highest ten percent got paid more than $43,880 and lowest ten percent got paid less than $22,040. The median annual salary for nursing assistants in top industries they worked for include the following:

Industry Median annual salary
Outpatient care centers $32,060
Private, local or state hospitals $31,410
Physician’s offices $30,830
Other health practitioner’s offices $27,980

The difference in salaries can be attributed by the level of experience in the field. For example, a junior medical assistant who has less than 5 years of experience as a medical assistant will have a low salary expectation as compared to the one who has more than 5 years of experience. What determines how much you earn in the form of salary as a medical assistant? The following factors will help you understand your earning potential:

The Employer

Different employers will reward their employees differently. A medical assistant of one employer will receive different perks depending on the patient turn out or the relationship between the employer and the employee. For example, an employer can choose to include bonuses and commissions for a job well done. Apart from that, there are hourly tips that can be awarded to the employee. Another package that makes part of the salary will be the overtime work an employee does. The job description has to entail the scope of work. Anything that is outside that scope will be paid differently. Although when working in a private practice, the rules do not necessarily apply, an employer can decide when to give you the commission, bonuses or pay for overtime. The more the commissions, bonuses, tips and overtime pay, the more you will rake in the form of salary.

Level of Experience

It is obvious that medical assistants with many years of practice will attract a huge salary as compared to the ones who have few years of experience. Employers will reward based on the experience you have in the field of practice.  For example, the entry-level medical assistant will have a lower income as compared to an experienced medical assistant. Those who come straight out of college will have to wait before they can go home with a huge salary. They are considered as entry level since they have low skills and experience in the field. They always work under the registered medical assistant or physician and with time, their salary level changes for the better.

Level of Education

A medical assistant with a certificate qualification will have a lower income as compared to the one with a diploma or associate degree qualification. Most of these qualifications are highlighted in the job requirement by the employer. Although a certificate holder can secure a job, an associate degree holder will have better chances of being employed. The expectation will, however, be different depending on the level of education. Most certificate and diploma holders will advance their education to the associate degree level while they are still working in medical facilities. As they advance their education and training, so will their salaries.

Medical Assistant Training Program

Most medical assistants who don’t have postsecondary education can learn through on the job training where other medical assistants or physicians can teach new medical assistants of the different tasks. Some of the things you can learn include name of various medical equipments, medical terminology, how to discuss with physicians or patients and also how to perform other tasks that keep an office operate smoothly. Medical assistants can also be taught how to code electronic health records (EHRS) as well as paper records and how to record personal information of patients. It normally takes a number of months for a medical assistant to complete training and it all depends on the facility.

Training for students who want to pursue a career as medical assistants will equip them with the necessary knowledge to perform their duties. However, the type of training you undergo will depend on the program you have chosen. It is clear students can now enroll in an online program which has proven to be convenient and less expensive. For example, you do not have to travel all the way to an institution of your choice to acquire the necessary knowledge and training to become a medical assistant. There is also the on-campus program that allows you to study and gain knowledge while in the institution of your choice.

Regardless of whether you want the on-campus or online program, you have to look for an institution that is accredited by the relevant bodies. Employers will be looking for students who have certification from those accredited institutions and thus marketable as compared to others. The three major training programs for medical assistants are the certificate, diploma, and associate degree. Each of these programs will entail a unique way through which students undergo medical training to help them during their practice.

Diploma

You can complete a diploma in less than 1 year and thus a good way to quickly quick-start your career as a medical assistant. It takes at most 3 semesters where you can be allowed to take the certified medical assistant test. Most certifications will require that you pass the exam before you can qualify for that certification. A diploma can help you improve your CV and thus improve your odds of securing a job. Under this program, you get training in administrative roles, clinical procedures and practice, medical law, anatomy and office management.

Training is for both administrative and clinical medical assistants. You will get learn and know how to receive visitors and patients, patient care and all other administrative roles you are required to know while working in a health center or medical facility.

Certificate

It prepares students who want to get into the job market as medical assistants. You get to learn the terminologies used the set up of a medical office and the training in general. Training will involve internships where you get to work with a professional medical officer in real-life experience this will help you learn how to deal with real medical issues while you take care of patients in a medical facility. It takes the same period to complete as compared to the diploma level of education and training. However, students in this program are equipped with the relevant knowledge and experience to pursue an associate degree program after completing the certificate program. The training in this program includes:

Insurance and Medical Billing

You get all training that relates to insurance and health care industry. You get to learn how to process insurance claims for patients and how it works. At some point, you will be expected to process claims of health insurance for patients. It is an administrative training program that allows you to take care of the relevant paperwork in a medical office. It may include filing and submitting insurance forms, and learning why and how they are prepared the way they are.

Medical Laboratory Training

It is part of the clinical training which ensures that you offer proper patient care once you get into the job market. The students get to learn the techniques and concepts used in the laboratory. They include testing samples and procedures in documentation and testing. Laboratory training is essential especially for clinical medical assistants as it forms part of their core duties.

Medical Assisting Internships

They form the final course or training of the program. Students are allowed to go out and showcase the knowledge and skills they have acquired in a classroom setting. They work with a professional in the field. Internships provide hands-on expertise to the students in their path to becoming medical assistants. Not all institutions will have the internship program as part of their curriculum. In such a case, you have to look for internships outside the program to impress the potential employer.

Associate Degree

It is a continuation of what you learn in the diploma and certificate level. You get to acquire advanced knowledge and training in the medical field. It will feature both administrative and clinical training but in the advanced stages as compared to the diploma and certificate programs. The training programs under the associate degree program will entail a more in-depth knowledge about the human body.

For example, phlebotomy, which is the study of the human circulatory system, where students learn the right way to take blood samples.

The study of psychology allows students to learn the human behavior and thus how to effectively deal with patients. Pharmacology is also a training course that equips students with the knowledge of how to administer medication to patients plus the various drug laws.

Medical Assistant Certification

In most states, medical assistants aren’t required to be certified but some employers might consider hiring certified assistants. There are a number of organizations offering certification and an applicant needs to pass an exam and for them to be eligible for each certification then they should take one of several paths. These paths might be work experience, graduating from an accredited program etc. Most organizations offering certification recommend that applicants should be at least 18 years for them to apply for certification. Some states might not allow medical assistants to practice it until they graduate from a certified program and pass an exam.

Certification normally indicates that a medical assistant meets particular standards of competence. MAs can also become certified in a certain area of expertise like ophthalmology, podiatry and optometry. Because they usually interact with the public it’s therefore important that they stay clean and neat and also be well-mannered. MAs must respect the personal nature of medical information and be able to take care of patients and explain instructions given by physicians. Medical tasks require a practical and realistic level of visual perception and manual dexterity. For more information on registrations, certifications and licenses you can check with board of medicine.

Some of the accredited certifications include:

  • Certified clinical medical assistant (CCMA).
  • Certified medical administrative assistant (CMAA), and
  • National certified medical assistant (NCMA) among others.

These certifications are offered by accredited programs to equip medical assistants with the relevant skills in their jobs. Employers will be more confident with medical assistants who have certifications as they have the necessary skills to execute their roles effectively. For example, the administrative roles and clinical duties which are covered in those certifications. Also, the medical field is dynamic and new ways of patient care and administrative duties in a hospital setting are coming up. Through those certifications, students can learn the new ways and make use of the latest technology to better their skills which might not be available during their certificate or diploma or associate degree study.

Most organizations that offer such certifications will require the student to graduate as a medical assistant and pass an exam before they can apply for the certification. However, some will require that you only have the experience as a medical assistant.

Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the US stated found out that the expected job opportunity for medical assistant from the year 2014 to 2024 was 23%; this is faster than the average for all occupations. The average salary for these health professions per year in May 2014 was $30,590 but it is expected to rise with time. As people age, many medical assistants will be needed to provide preventive medical services which is usually offered by physicians. Medical assistants typically come in to help physicians to attend to many patients because they will be assisting in performing regular clinical as well as administrative duties. Clinics, hospitals and other healthcare facilities have increased in number and this has lead to demand of support workers such as medical assistants to provide both clinical and administrative duties. Medical assistants can be found in the basic care or an increasingly developing healthcare industry sector.

Through additional training and experience medical assistants might advance to other careers. For instance, some MAs may decide to pursue additional education so that they can become nurses or health care workers while others may teach medical assisting. Administrative medical assistants may go on to become office manager or even qualify for several administrative support careers.

Advancement in Technology

The growth in the level of technology will be accompanied by personnel who will be able to use that technology. When you have a clinic that uses high-tech equipment, you will need a medical assistant who can use that equipment. It will thus help create or increase the demand for medical assistant in health centers and clinics to serve the huge turnout of patients. Most medical institutions and hospitals are using the latest technology to offer better services to their patients. However, the growing number of doctors will require assistance from medical technicians so that they can concentrate on their core skills.

High Population

The ratio of doctor to patient should be standard and manageable. With the rise in the population level, more doctors have to be employed to cater for the high demand. A population that is high means that more people will make an appointment with the doctor. Each doctor will require an assistant who has experience and knowledge in the medical field. This will increase the need to hire more medical assistants to take care of the administrative and clinical roles.

Demand for Better Medical and Healthcare Services

You will find medical assistants in hospitals, clinics, and private practice. All these are private and public health centers where patients visit to seek treatment. The need for better medical services will require the hiring of more medical assistants to take care of the needs of patients. The medical services may be at the reception or through patient care. In short, anything that leads to smooth operations within a medical facility will constitute as better care for the patient. This will result to the mushrooming of more clinics and private practice by doctors to better the services to their patients. As a result, it will lead to more opportunities for medical assistants in future.

Growth of the Healthcare Industry

Things are changing rapidly with the people’s way of life and living standards. The increase of the healthcare industry is thus inevitable with more people looking to set up private clinics and health centers. It is thus set to increase the demand for medical assistants to take care of minor operations in those clinics. With a mix of technology advancement and population increase, the job market for medical assistants is set to grow with time.

Location

According to a survey of 2015 by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, different states in the US offer different salaries to medical assistants. For example, in the state of California, a medical assistant can expect to earn an annual salary of $35,440, and $29,180, $30,170, $34,280 for Texas, Florida, and New York respectively. The difference in the pay scale can be attributed by the variation in the living standards and the economic status of those states. Having prior knowledge of the salary expectations of every state can help you choose where to work as a medical assistant. The District of Columbia (DC) state attracted the highest salary for medical assistants in the country with an annual pay of $39,780.

Industry

The demand for medical assistants spreads across numerous industries across the economy. They include among them outpatient care centers, physicians’ offices, health practitioners’ offices and medical laboratories. Each of the above industries will offer a different salary package for the medical assistants. For example, medical laboratories will offer annual pay of $41,930, and the outpatient care centers $33,550 according to the 2015 salary survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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