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How to Become A Medical Assistant

This article provides an overview of medical assistant careers and the requirements to become a medical assistant. This article will outline medical assistant job duties, salary levels, and employment prospects, as well as discuss the career's necessary skills, training, educational requirements, and certification requirements.

Medical Assisting

Medical Assistant Job Duties

Medical assistants perform routine administrative and clinical tasks in the offices of medical practitioners. Their duties will vary depending on the size, type, and location of a medical practice. In smaller practices, medical assistants tend to be generalists with both clinical and administrative duties, reporting either to an office administrator or physician. In larger practices, medical assistants tend to specialize and report to a supervisor or department administrator. The administrative duties of a medical assistant may include:

  • Answering telephones
  • Greeting patients
  • Updating and filing patient's medical records
  • Filling out insurance forms
  • Correspondence
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Arranging for hospital admission
  • Handling billing and bookkeeping

The clinical duties of a medical assistant vary according to individual state law. Clinical duties can include:

  • Taking medical histories
  • Recording vital signs
  • Explaining treatment procedures or instructing patients about medications and special diets
  • Preparing patients for examination
  • Assisting the physician during the examinations
  • Collecting and preparing laboratory specimens
  • Performing basic laboratory tests on the premises
  • Disposing of contaminated supplies
  • Sterilizing medical instruments
  • Preparing and administering medications as directed by a physician
  • Authorizing drug refills as directed
  • Telephoning prescriptions to a pharmacy
  • Drawing blood
  • Preparing patients for x rays
  • Taking electrocardiograms
  • Removing sutures
  • Changing dressings
  • Arrange examining-room instruments and equipment
  • Maintaining supplies and equipment

Medical assistants should not be confused with physicians assistants, who typically have broader clinical duties. Some medical assistants in specialist's offices may have additional specialized clinical duties.

Medical assistants typically work a 40-hour work week. Some work nights and weekends. Some work part-time.

Medical Assistant Job Skills

Medical assistant skills include:

  • Courteous and pleasant manner to effectively deal with the public and to be able to put patients at ease
  • Manual dexterity and visual acuity to perform certain clinical duties
  • Strong attention to detail to perform clinical duties accurately and efficiently
  • Excellent verbal communication skills to be able to explain physician's instructions
  • Strong ethical and confidentiality standards because of confidential patient medical information that they handle
  • Good organizational skills to effectively deal with patient records and other administrative tasks

Medical Assistant Income

Salaries for medical assistants vary depending on experience, skill level, and location. As of 2002, salaries for medical assistants were around $23,940, with the top 10% earning more than $34,130. Earnings for medical assistants vary by industry segment with the median annual incomes for the industries employing the largest number of medical assistants being:

IndustryMedian Salary General medical and surgical hospitals $24,460 Physicians offices $24,260 Outpatient care centers $23,980 Other health care services $23,440 Offices of other practitioners $21,620

Training and Education Required to Become a Medical Assistant

While training beyond a high school degree is not always required, formal training in medical assisting is generally preferred. Training in medical assisting can be obtained in the following ways:

  • Programs offered in vocational/technical high schools
  • 1-year post secondary programs that usually lead to a certificate or diploma
  • 2-year post secondary programs that lead to an associate degree

Medical assistant programs can be accredited by the following agencies:

  • The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
  • Committee on Accreditation for Ophthalmic Medical Personnel (CoA-OMP)

In 2002, there were 495 medical assistant programs accredited by CAAHEP, and about 170 accredited by ABHES. There were also 14 ophthalmic medical assistant programs accredited by CoA-OMP.

Medical assistants are not licensed, but some states do require either a test or a course before they can perform certain tasks. It is also not required that medical assistants become certified, however, most employers prefer certified medical assistants. Certification credentials are available from the following organizations:

  • The American Association of Medical Assistants - awards the Certified Medical Assistant credential
  • The American Medical Technologists - awards the Registered Medical Assistant credential
  • The American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants - awards the Podiatric Medical Assistant Certified credential
  • The Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology - awards credentials at three levels: Certified Ophthalmic Assistant, Certified Ophthalmic Technician, and Certified Ophthalmic Medical Technologist

Click here for information on schools offering Medical Assistant Training and the programs that they offer.

Medical Assistant Employment

In 2002, there were about 365,000 medical assistants in the United States. Almost 60% of medical assistants work in physicians offices. About 14% work in private or public hospitals. 10% work in the offices of other health practitioners. The remainder worked in outpatient care centers, public and private educational services, other ambulatory healthcare services, state and local government agencies, medical and diagnostic laboratories, nursing care facilities, and employment services.

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

The need for medical assistants is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations over most of the next decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is projected to be the fastest growing of all occupations through 2012. Job growth will be driven by the growth of the healthcare industry. Job prospects will be best for individuals with formal training, certification, and experience.


Medical Assistant Training

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