Medical assistants provide administrative and clinical support to medical professionals in a variety of health care settings. An individual can become a medical assistant in as little as a year after graduating high school through any number of the hundreds of schools offering medical assisting programs. Once the medical assistant education process is completed, there is an equally wide array of career choices for graduates. This guide will give a background to the medical assisting profession, explain how to become a medical assistant, outline college program options, explore job opportunities and show what graduates can expect once working as a medical assistant.
Becoming a medical assistant calls for a combination of formal education and hands-on training, which can be completed via numerous avenues. Those who want to earn certification must have some level of formal education in order to do so. Though certification is not required in order to work as a medical assistant, many students opt for certification in order to look more attractive to potential employers.
There are two primary tasks for medical assistants. First, they engage in administrative tasks such as filling out insurance forms, processing medical bills, answering the telephone and handling patient scheduling. Second, they assist other health care providers, such as doctors, nurses and physician assistants, in providing medical care to patients. For example, they often take a patient’s weight, blood pressure and other basic vital sign readings at the beginning of an appointment. They also collect fluid samples and tissue specimens for laboratory testing. Depending on the medical office or health care setting, medical assistants may work exclusively in one of these areas or work in both. Generally, the smaller the office, the more likely a medical assistant will take on both roles.
So, you know what it takes to become a medical assistant, but now you want to know if the education involved in becoming a CMA is worth the cost. Do you know how much medical assistants can earn? While any job in a health care field is generally a very stable career, the bottom line is still important to many people. The median annual salary for medical assistants is about $30,000, with top wage earners bringing home about $43,000. CMAs can command a higher salary because of their additional training and qualifications.
The five highest-paying states/areas for medical assistants reported the following annual mean wages as of May 2014, according to the BLS:
|District of Columbia||$39,860|
Use the map below to compare medical assisting salary estimates by state:
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for medical assistants is expected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022. This is a high level of demand, considering all other health care support occupations are expected to grow 23 percent over the same period. Three reasons for the large job growth are the Affordable Care Act’s increased medical documentation requirements, the increasing availability of medical care to the general population, and the aging population of baby boomers, who will need more medical care as they get older. The list below provides the 10 states where demand for medical assistants is expected to be the greatest from 2012 to 2022:
Wondering how growth in your state looks? Select a state below for more information about employment and job growth for medical assistants .
Although it’s possible to begin a career as a medical assistant without completing a formal post-secondary education program, many employers prefer to hire graduates of accredited programs. When choosing a program, make sure it is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
If you decide to pursue formal education as a medical assistant, a multitude of certificate, diploma and associate degree programs exist. A two-year associate degree program offers slightly more advanced training compared to certificate and diploma programs. This is a good option for students who want to eventually earn a more advanced degree (such as a bachelor’s) in a health-related field. Certificate and diploma programs are good options for those who want to complete training as quickly as possible, since many can be completed in less than a year.
Some programs require students to obtain hands-on experience in an actual medical facility working as a medical assistant. If a program does not have this requirement, it is advisable to find a way to get this real-world experience. For example, summer internships or externships during the school year may be available to students who seek them out. However this experience is obtained, it is very important because it provides an opportunity for medical assistant students to apply their in-class knowledge and training to actual patients and medical tasks. Additionally, it can help students find postgraduate employment by improving their résumé and serving as an “extended interview” should the facility be open to hiring interns for paid positions.
While certification is not required, many employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants. That’s because certification indicates that the medical assistant possesses a certain level of knowledge that has been proven through testing. This preference by employers also means that certification will enhance a student’s postgraduate marketability. The following certifications are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies:
Most organizations require applicants to pass an exam and graduate from an accredited program. However, some organizations, such as AMT, allow students to sit for the RMA examination without a degree or diploma from an accredited institution if they have already gained extensive work experience as a full-time medical assistant.
Prospective students interested in becoming a medical assistant can choose from two different academic paths. The first is to earn a certificate or diploma and the second is to earn an associate degree. An overview of differences between these two options is explained below:
|Diploma or Certificate||Associate Degree|
|Curriculum Focus||Practical, hands-on training to prepare for entry-level positions immediately after graduating. Courses cover a range of key topics such as medical law, patient care, health sciences, and medical terminology.||Similar coursework as diploma or certificate programs, but greater emphasis on general education.|
|Duration of Program||Typically one year, but can be shorter, depending on the program||Typically two years of full-time study|
|Benefits||This is the fastest way to gain career training||Students obtain a degree that can then be used as a stepping stone towards a bachelor’s degree|
|Disadvantages||Graduates may be slightly less marketable compared to graduates with an associate degree, all else being equal||Takes longer to complete a degree and is usually more expensive than a certificate or diploma|
Students who enter a diploma or certificate program will learn the fundamental knowledge and concepts of both the administrative and clinical components of a medical office. The curriculum will provide students with knowledge of the health care industry in the United States and teach them how to understand medical terminology, process medical and insurance forms, and conduct basic medical tasks and procedures relevant to most medical offices. Students will also learn about human anatomy and systems. Toward the end of the program, students will put their knowledge and skills to actual use through a clinical internship or externship.
The following table details some of the classes a student in a diploma or certificate program may encounter, as well as the skills learned from each class:
Teaches students the proper medical terms and health care vocabulary needed to effectively communicate in a medical office. Students also gain a basic understanding of human anatomy.
This course explains the basics of the health insurance industry and how insurance claims are submitted and processed. Diagnosis and medical procedural coding are also taught.
Students are introduced to all aspects of the laboratory process typical of medical offices. Laboratory testing techniques and documentation procedures are covered.
This is the capstone class students take before entering the professional world. Students will complete a certain amount of hours working in a relevant medical setting.
The theories and skills taught at the diploma or certificate level are also taught at the associate level. However, students working for their associate degree will get a more well rounded education to go with their medical assisting knowledge. For example, students will take general education courses such as math, writing, and humanities. Also, depending on the associate degree program, medical assisting–related courses will also be taken. Examples of these types of classes include psychology, critical thinking, and Microsoft Office. While not directly related to medical assisting, these classes provide a more solid foundation and context to the core medical assisting education. Lastly, some concepts will be taught at a more in-depth level, such as phlebotomy.
Below is a table of common coursework covered at the associate degree level:
Students study the human circulatory system and learn the proper techniques to effectively and safely collect blood samples.
The basics of human behavioral science are discussed in this course. Students also learn to analyze and interpret data and trends.
An overview of ethical and legal principles related to providing health care. Concepts such as documentation procedures, privacy requirements, and the patient’s bill of rights are also explained.
This course covers the background of pharmaceuticals and drug laws as well as how to administer medications.
Medical assisting schools are not limited to on-campus programs. There are many online programs that offer certificates, diplomas, or associate degrees. However, choosing the right online medical assisting school can be daunting. Below are some factors to consider when choosing a distance program:
An important factor in measuring the quality of education is learning more about the individuals providing the education. It’s a safe bet that the more experienced the instructor is – either providing medical care to patients in a clinical setting or explaining difficult medical concepts to students in an academic setting – the better the quality of instruction. When researching online medical assisting programs, look for instructors and faculty that have years of experience in clinical practice, especially in various roles, such as nursing or administration. Not only will the instructor have firsthand experience of what it’s like to be a medical assistant, he or she will also have an alternative perspective of how medical assistants work alongside other health care providers.
Accreditation ensures that the level of education meets certain minimum quality standards. When a student graduates from an accredited school, it tells employers that the student has learned the fundamental concepts necessary to succeed in the profession. Students who want to become an RMA or CMA should look for programs that are accredited by the CAAHEP or ABHES. While graduating from a non-accredited school or program would not bar a student from becoming a medical assistant, it could make it more difficult to find employment and might prevent them from becoming certified.
Most accredited medical assisting schools tailor their curriculum so that students will be prepared to sit for a certification examination upon graduation. Students should determine which examination the school typically prepares graduates to take, find the school’s certification passage rate, and compare that to the national average. This is a good way of determining the quality of a given medical assisting program.
Due to the myriad tasks involved in the profession, medical assistants must be organized professionals with knowledge of medical terms and procedures. They should possess a good bedside manner when working with patients and be willing to constantly learn and grow in the field. Medical assistants should be able to multitask and work well in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment. Patience and good communication skills are necessary when working with patients and other health professionals.
As a health care professional, a medical assistant is responsible for effectively communicating with patients. For example, a medical assistant might instruct patients on taking injectable medication. The medical assistant might teach the patient to inject with enough medication to fill provided syringes; however, if the syringe size changes, the dosage must change as well. A medical assistant must recognize this change and assist the patient in understanding the new dosage, thus avoiding an overdose.
Still thinking about a career related to medical assisting? The below chart provides similar careers, median salaries, expected growth and training/education required to enter those professions:
Besides medical assisting, there are several other careers and educational paths available for those who want to work in the health care field.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics
If medical assisting is not right for you, there are many other related occupations to consider. Below is a graph showing salary comparisons between medical assistants, dental assistants, dental hygienists, licensed practical/vocational nurses and nursing assistants:
Use the search tool below to sift through the numerous medical assisting programs available and explore programs that meet your specific criteria.
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