Medical Assistant Career

What is a Medical Assistant?

A medical assistant is an entry-level worker that works in the medical and healthcare field in a supportive role to physicians, nurses, and other medical personnel. It is a career that is often non-stop action, with involvement in virtually every aspect of the day-to-day functioning of hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, outpatient facilities, doctor’s offices, and the like. That includes anything from explaining treatments to patients to entering health information into a computer to drawing blood, and many different tasks in between. In that regard, a medical assistant is often a dual-purpose worker, one that can manage both clinical and clerical duties.

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Medical assistants play a crucial role in helping healthcare facilities run as smoothly as possible. As noted above, they do this in two primary capacities – clinical and clerical duties.

Regarding clinical duties, a medical assistant might take a patient’s vital signs, measure their weight, or ask them basic questions regarding why they’ve sought medical treatment. For example, when you visit a doctor’s office with a cold or flu, the person that takes your temperature, checks your blood pressure, and inquires about things like how long you’ve been sick and what symptoms you’re experiencing is most likely a medical assistant.

Some medical assistants carry out their clinical duties with patients, as described above. Other medical assistants specialize more in non-client related tasks, like setting up equipment for a physician (i.e., preparing an EKG machine for a cardiologist to examine a patient’s electrical activity) or performing lab tests (i.e., processing a strep throat culture).

Related: How to Become a Physician Assistant

On the clerical side, medical assistants handle a wide variety of tasks. Perhaps most often, medical assistants answer phones, schedule appointments, and process patients as they come into the office, clinic, hospital or other facility. Medical assistants often retrieve patient data (as well as enter it), coordinate with other medical assistants and office staff to ensure each patient receives the care that they need, and assist patients in filling out paperwork, insurance forms, and the like. Medical assistants are often responsible for financial duties as well. This primarily includes taking payments at the time that services are rendered, processing invoices, sending bills, and so forth.

By and large, the smaller the facility in which one works, the wider range of responsibilities one will have. For example, a medical assistant that works in a small doctor’s office will likely handle each task outlined above (and perhaps quite a few more as well). Conversely, a medical assistant that works in a hospital or other type of care facility will likely have more specialized duties.

What Does a Medical Assistant Do in a Hospital?

Because hospitals are broken into different departments with different areas of specialization, a medical assistant’s role is generally attuned to the area in which they work.

For example, a medical assistant that works on the obstetrics floor of a hospital would likely have training that allows them to address the needs of the patients on that floor more fully. This might include measuring the expecting mother’s vital signs, helping her to breathe effectively during a contraction, and tending to the newborn baby in the first few moments after birth.

Likewise, a medical assistant in the cardiology department might have a specialized skill set that allows them to set up cardiology equipment, and in some cases, even read and examine data collected by electrocardiograms.

As another example, medical assistants working in the recovery unit would have specialized training that allows them to assist patients in activities of daily living. A patient that’s just had back surgery, for example, would likely need assistance eating and drinking, as well as assistance using the restroom. Bathing patients and grooming them until they are able to do so themselves would be further tasks assigned to a medical assistant.

Medical assistants are often tasked with helping patients in a hospital with their recovery efforts as well. For example, a medical assistant would oversee the exercise regimen given to a patient that had been injured in a car accident. This might be something as simple as helping the patient to extend their arm or leg and then contract it, or involve something more complex, like providing support to them as they transition from their hospital bed to a wheelchair.

In addition to these clinical roles, medical assistants in hospitals are typically expected to fulfill clerical duties as outlined in the previous section. In a hospital setting, additional clerical duties might include entering billing codes into the hospital’s computer system, coordinating with an individual patient’s insurance company to determine coverage, and handling patient charts.

Where Does a Medical Assistant Work?

Medical assistants can find employment in a variety of healthcare-related settings. Most commonly, medical assistants work in hospitals, emergency rooms, urgent care clinics, and other long- and short-term medical facilities.

Nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, inpatient clinics, and outpatient clinics are also common work environments for medical assistants. A large number of workers in this field work in small office settings, like a local doctor’s office, in which there might be just one or two physicians.

Less commonly, you’ll find medical assistants working in laboratory settings where they function more in a research capacity than anything else. For example, a medical assistant might be charged with processing blood, urine or other biological samples for a drug testing company. Likewise, researchers at universities or government institutions might employ medical assistants to provide support in conducting research on a specific medical condition.

Why Do We Need Medical Assistants?

Medical assistants provide wide-ranging services that help patients get the treatment they need. As noted earlier, this includes everything from helping patients complete paperwork to helping them with their recovery after an illness, accident or surgery. What’s more, some medical assistants help patients with primary tasks like eating and drinking, provide information to family members for continued care, and report on vital information like blood pressure, weight, and temperature to help create a more complete picture of the patient’s current health.

Beyond that, medical assistants are essentially the glue the holds a medical facility together. Whether they work in a large hospital or a small doctor’s office, medical assistants are often at the forefront of major clerical duties like entering patient information, billing patients for services rendered, ordering tests, disseminating information to doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, and greeting patients on phone or in person.

In other words, medical assistants are a rare breed that plays crucial roles in both clinical care and the day-to-day operation of healthcare providers. That makes them a critical component in people getting proper care in a timely and effective manner.

What are the Requirements to Become a Medical Assistant?

Educational Requirements

The formal educational requirements for medical assistants vary, depending on the requirements of the positions.

At a minimum, medical assistants must have a high school diploma, and then set about a period of on-the-job training that acquaints them with the demands of the job. The length of the training might last just a few weeks r it could extend into several months, again, depending on the specific requirements of the job. Naturally, the aim of the training period is to provide the worker with the requisite knowledge and skills that are needed to perform the duties of the job effectively and safely.

Many medical assistants choose to complete a medical assisting diploma or certificate program at a community college or vocational school. These programs typically take one year to complete, and focus on coursework in the medical realm, like anatomy and physiology, biology, and medical terminology. These diploma and certificate programs usually have basic admissions requirements that might include, but are not limited to, having a high school diploma or GED, a satisfactory GPA, and perhaps a letter of recommendation from high school teachers or guidance counselors.

There are also two-year associate’s degree programs available for medical assistant students that wish to have a little more depth of education and training. These programs typically require students to complete around 60 credit hours of coursework, about half of which focuses on general education courses like mathematics, humanities, and language arts. The other 30 or so credit hours are focused more specifically on courses that prepare students for a career as a medical assistant, like life sciences, chemistry, and nursing.

Once a student obtains employment as a medical assistant, professional education opportunities can further one’s education. For example, a medical assistant that’s worked at a hospital for two years might decide to take coursework in phlebotomy or even complete a certification program in phlebotomy. Professional education might even be required for medical assistants in some workplaces to ensure they stay abreast of changes in the field.

Licensing/Certification Requirements

At this point, licensure is not required for medical assistants. However, some employers might require medical assistants to be certified, which demonstrates that the medical assistant has met higher standards of knowledge and skills.

Certification can be obtained from numerous sources, including the American Association of Medical Assistants. This organization offers the CMA credential, which indicates certification through the Certifying Board of the American Association of Medical Assistants. To obtain this credential, one must graduate from a post-secondary medical assistant program that is accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

Likewise, the CMA credential requires workers to complete an internship as well as pass the certification examination. To retain certification, workers must complete continuing education or undertake the recertification process every 60 months.

What Do You Learn in a Medical Assistant Degree Program?

Students that choose to complete a two-year medical assistant degree program will complete coursework in both medical and business fields. That includes:

  • The workings of the human body and its systems in courses like anatomy, physiology, and biology.
  • Medical terminology that’s used to communicate a patient’s condition to other medical staff.
  • Laboratory techniques, such as analyzing blood tests.
  • Pharmacology, including learning about classes of drugs, common drug treatments, and how to administer drugs.
  • Diagnostic and other clinical procedures, like taking a patient’s blood pressure and listening to their heartbeat.
  • Clerical topics, such as keyboarding, data entry, and record keeping.
  • Accounting procedures, like entering amounts due, insurance payments, and processing payments received.
  • Medical coding, such as entering patient data into electronic medical records.
  • Ethical practices, both in terms of providing sound medical treatment and in terms of conducting oneself in an appropriate manner in an office environment.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

By and large, it takes one year to complete a post-secondary medical assistant program, though that depends on a number of factors. Naturally, the more classes that are required will necessitate a longer period of time to complete the program requirements. In fact, some medical assistant programs take closer to two years to complete because of the additional graduation requirements expected of students.

However, compared to other areas of study in the medical field, the one to two years required to get a diploma or certification in this area is much, much shorter than what is typical. And since some medical assistant jobs require no post-secondary education and instead involve on-the-job training, in some cases, it doesn’t take any time beyond a high school diploma to find an entry-level medical assistant job.

What Skills are Required for a Medical Assistant?

Because medical assistants are responsible for everything from greeting patients to entering patient data to drawing blood, there are a wide range of skills that are required. These include:

  • People skills – Medical assistants must be able to project warmth, caring, and empathy whether they are answering the phone in a doctor’s office, helping a patient with rehabilitation exercises, or communicating with a patient’s family members.
  • Communication skills – Workers in this field must have a strong grasp of both verbal and written communication. Being able to actively listen is another important quality for a medical assistant to have.
  • Detail-oriented – Performing tasks like administering medication, setting up medical testing equipment, and entering patient medical records requires a deep attention to detail.
  • Analytical skills – Medical assistants must be able to solve problems on their own as well as contribute their analyses to other members of the medical team. Likewise, they must be able to analyze a patient’s progress, understand doctor’s orders, and interpret medical charts.
  • Technology skills – Computers and medical technologies are an integral component of the healthcare environment. As such, medical assistants must be adept at using computers, tablets, proprietary software, and specialized medical equipment like EKG machines, stethoscopes, microscopes, and the like.

What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Medical Assistant?

A career as a medical assistant can have many benefits, including:

  • Helping others – Medical assistants can end their workday knowing that they had a positive impact on their patients and their patient’s progress toward healthier living.
  • Short educational time period – Medical assistants spend two years at the most studying for their career. In many cases, they can begin work right out of high school.
  • Job security – With the demand for medical assistants on the rise, students that pursue this area of study and employment have a good chance of having many job opportunities for the foreseeable future.

Of course, like with any career path, there are some detriments to being a medical assistant:

  • Odd hours – Medical assistants might work nights, weekends or both. Likewise, they might have some weeks during which they work days and others during which they work nights. The odd schedule can be very tiring and take workers away from spending time with their families.
  • Stressful work – Medical assistants not only have many varying responsibilities, which can induce stress, but caring for patients that are injured, sick or terminally ill can also be quite emotionally taxing.
  • Low pay ­– Compared to other workers in the medical field, medical assistants have comparatively low pay.

How Much Does a Medical Assistant Make?

Since medical assistant positions tend to be entry-level with no more than two years of post-secondary education required, the salary tends to be much lower than what other workers in the medical field earn on an annual basis. This bears out in estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports that medical assistants make an average of $31,540 per year in the United States, as of 2016.

Naturally, the salary one makes depends on multiple factors, not the least of which is the level of education. For example, a medical assistant that has a two-year degree and is a certified medical assistant can command a higher wage than someone that enters the field directly out of high school.

Likewise, the level of experience a medical assistant has impacts their wages. Workers that are just starting out – even those with more education under their belt – will make less money than those that have been working in this field even for just a year or two.

What is the Job Outlook for Medical Assistants?

The medical field as a whole has a healthy job outlook for the coming years, and medical assistant occupations are no exception. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in this field will see explosive growth through the late 2020s, increasing by a whopping 29 percent. Unsurprisingly, that represents much faster growth than the average.

The primary reason why this career field is expected to grow so rapidly is because the Baby Boom generation is getting older and more and more people from that generation are seeking out medical treatments. With more patients coming into doctor’s offices, clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities, the demand for trained medical assistants to help with clinical and clerical duties will only continue to increase.

Another reason why more careers for medical assistants will become available is because medical assistants can handle so many different tasks. Some can be hired to focus on clerical duties, others can be hired to focus on clinical duties, and yet others can handle both. This versatility in the workplace can prove invaluable to employers.

What Professions are Similar to Medical Assistant?

There are a variety of occupations both within and outside the medical field that offer workers a similar experience as being a medical assistant. These include:

Nursing Assistant – Like medical assistants, nursing assistants are entry-level workers tasked with overseeing day-to-day activities in a healthcare setting. However, unlike medical assistants, nursing assistants focus almost solely on providing patient care, like bathing patients, transferring patients from their bed to a wheelchair, helping patients eat, and, in some cases, administering medication, as opposed to working on clerical tasks like medical assistants often do. Nursing assistants are common in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes.

Licensed Practical Nurse – A licensed practical nurse (LPN) provides basic medical care to patients, usually under the direction and supervision of a more senior nurse, like a registered nurse (RN), or the attending physician. A typical day for an LPN might involve checking a patient’s vital signs, changing medical equipment like catheters, assisting patients in bathing, dressing, or hygiene activities, and updating patient records. Likewise, LPNs report to nurses and doctors on the current condition of the patient, noting any concerns about the patient’s health to more senior staff members. LPNs might have expanded roles beyond these basic tasks, but that depends on their level of additional training, the policies of the facility in which they work, as well as the regulations set forth by the state in which they work.

Medical Records Health Technician – Workers in the field of health information technology focus the bulk of their time on recording, organizing, and managing patient health data in both paper and electronic forms. More specifically, medical records technicians are tasked with ensuring that patient medical records are accurate, easy to access, and secure, that way medical staff can quickly and easily surmise a patient’s medical history and current medical condition. Typically, medical records health technicians work in public and private hospitals, though they sometimes find employment in large medical practices as well.

Dental Assistant – A dental assistant is responsible for many of the same duties as a medical assistant. Dental assistants often greet patients, prep them in the examination chair, sterilize dental instruments, and oversee procedures like taking dental X-rays. Dental assistants also work with dentists to complete examinations and other procedures by providing suction and handing instruments to dentists. In addition to these patient care duties, dental assistants typically complete clerical tasks as well, including updating and maintaining patient records, making patient appointments, processing patient paperwork, and answering phones.

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