What is a Medical Assistant? [2021 Quick Guide: How To Become a Medical Assistant]

If you’re wondering how to become a medical assistant, you’re in the right place. Medical assistants are an essential part of the healthcare field, and a career is relatively quick to prepare for.

how to become a medical assistantStep 1: Learn, What is a Medical Assistant?

A medical assistant is someone who works in a medical office doing administrative or clinical tasks supporting physicians and other health professionals. They do this by interacting with patients, managing office records, preparing blood work, recording vital signs, taking medical histories, preparing patients for examination, or administering medication as directed by a physician. 

Because medical assistants work with people all day, it is no surprise that ONET reports knowledge of customer service is one of the most important items for a MA to possess. This includes the ability to assess what a patient needs and then performing the tasks needed to help these patients become satisfied. Coming in second is knowledge of information needed to treat human injuries. This includes understanding symptoms of illnesses, treatments as well as drug properties and integrations.

Earnings for MAs vary by state, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2019 median annual wage for medical assistants was $34,800. Given that our population is living longer, it may come as no surprise that more healthcare workers could be needed to support this demand. There are a predicted 139,200 new jobs expected from 2019 thru 2019, that is a growth rate of 19%! That is MUCH faster than average compared to other jobs.

Deciding that you want to have a medical assisting career is one thing. Figuring out what type of MA you want to pursue is another.

Step 2: Learn, What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Clinical vs Administrative

Depending on your interests, you could pursue a career as a Clinical or Administrative Medical Assistant. You can also become Certified or Registered. Clinical MAs and administrative MAs perform different duties.

As a Clinical Medical Assistant  you could have varying responsibilities depending on your work environment. Generally, you will sterilize medical instruments, talk to patients about their medications, and draw blood. Your work tends to be hands-on. Other tasks may include:

  • Operating technology such as blood pressure measuring equipment
  • Conducting sample analysis
  • Disposing of contaminated supplies
  • Logging blood specimens
  • Keeping up-to-date technically
  • Providing prescription information to pharmacies
  • Showing patients to examination rooms
  • Exercising critical thinking

As a Administrative Medical Assistant you would focus more on the business side of the healthcare office. Administrative Medical Assistants code patients’ medical information, fill out insurance forms, buy office supplies, and answer phones.

  • Managing patient records
  • Transcribing in written or electronic form
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Purchasing office equipment and supplies
  • Completing insurance forms
  • Using business software applications
  • Knowledge of customer service
  • Meeting quality standards for service

Step 3: Learn About the Educational Requirements

You’ve taken the first step and decided this is the career path you’d like to pursue. But do you need a degree to become a medical assistant? The simple answer is NO – you do not need a degree or certification. In fact, according to ONET, 10% of medical assistants have earned only a high school diploma or equivalent and learn their specific duties on the job. However, 65% have earned some sort of post secondary certificate, and another 18% has earned an associates degree. However, there are several things you should be aware of when making a choice about pursuing degree or certification and whether or not you choose to become certified.

In some circumstances, an employer may provide on-the-job training to familiarize new hires with commonly-used instruments, terminology, and other important knowledge that would otherwise be learned through a medical assisting program.

It is typical that medical assistants graduate from one sort of postsecondary program or another, and employers may prefer to hire assistants who have completed some sort of medical assistant program or degree. In some circumstances, an employer may provide on-the-job training to familiarize new hires with commonly-used instruments, terminology, and other important knowledge that would otherwise be learned through a medical assisting program.

Last, some states have stricter rules for medical assistants who perform duties like administering injections and taking x-rays.

How Long Does it Take To Become a Medical Assistant?

If you opt to pursue formal career education, typically a certificate or diploma medical assisting program may be completed in about a year of full time study. Alternatively, you could opt to earn an associate’s degree in medical assisting, which typically takes around two years. You may expect your program to include both classroom and lab work, and you’ll explore topics like human anatomy, medical terminology, first aid, billing and coding, and much more.

It’s also important to keep in mind that a degree may not be the only way to go. You could also choose to earn a certificate or diploma in medical assisting, which may take less time than an associate’s degree. 

How Much Does it Cost?

The cost of a program will depend on if it is a diploma, certificate or associates program. Also an important factor is the school’s in state or out of state tuition policy. According to NCES 2018 school data, the average in state tuition for schools with this program is $3,705. Out of state tuition may be as high as $18,021.

Step 4: Medical Assistant Certification: Why it’s important to become a Certified Medical Assistant

One question most people may ask is, do I need to be certified to become a medical assistant? The short answer is no. You do not need to be certified. BUT, some employers may prefer or require it. And, in some states you may obtain additional responsibilities if you are certified. Certification indicates you have completed steps to prove you are knowledgeable in your field, like graduating from an accredited medical assisting program and/or passing an exam.

Keep in mind that various employers will have different criteria when it comes to seeking candidates. Medical assistants hoping to be more competitive for employment opportunities may wish to consider every means of distinguishing themselves in the field, and certification is just one possible step.

Though it may be not be required by the particular state in which you live, certification is preferred by employers and you may want to consider this as your next step following graduation from a medical assisting program. Your instructors may steer you towards the certification option preferred by your school. In most cases, you’ll need to pass an exam. Common certifications include Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) or Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association. Obtaining certification may enhance your future medical assisting career. Two types of certificates are Registered Medical Assistants (RMAs) and Certified Medical Assistants (CMAs).

Registered Medical Assistant 

Registered Medical Assistants (RMAs) obtain their certification from a nonprofit agency called the American Medical Technologists (AMT). You must have at least five years of experience as a MA prior to taking the exam. A membership charge may be included as well as a testing fee. The exam covers similar categories as the CMA exam like physiology, anatomy, medical laws, medical ethics, insurance, finance, and clinical medical assisting. While the CMA may be better known among some states, most employers will consider either the RMA or CMA credential. Check with your state regarding regulations prior to earning your certification for your medical assisting career.

Certified Medical Assistant 

CMAs are licensed through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Certification must be renewed every five years to ensure that CMAs state up to date on the latest skills. The CMA exam requires a fee which may vary, depending on if you are a member of an accrediting organization. Exam subject areas include clinical and administrative procedures, anatomy and physiology, legal regulations, lab procedures, and medical terminology and prepares you fully for any medical assisting career.  Other than the AAMA, there are other organizations that also offer certification.  Most of the time, applicants must be at least 18 years old prior to applying for certification. There are three different forms of CMA certification:

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) – from AAMA
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) – from the National Healthcareer Association (NHA)
  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) – from the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT

Keep learning!

Every employer is different, and medical assisting job requirements could range from basic office skills to bilingualism, depending on the needs of the hospital or medical center. While you cannot be sure what employers in your area will be looking for at the time you are ready to pursue job opportunities, earning good grades in your medical assisting program, gaining experience through volunteering in a healthcare setting, and joining one or more professional associations are just a few ideas for enhancing your career preparation. 

If you’re interested in a medical assisting career, learning as much as you can before pursuing opportunities in this field should serve you well. Consider volunteering in a hospital to get a sense of the work environment you’ll be experiencing. If you know any healthcare workers, don’t be afraid to ask, “How do I pursue a career as a medical assistant?” 

And don’t stop seeking knowledge. Medical and technological advances ensure that this field is always changing for the better. Whether you earn a certificate, pursue your associate’s degree, or learn on the job, you can be sure that a career in medical assisting is a lifelong education.

Medical Assistant Education Levels and Career Paths

Our Partner Schools