What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants play a key role within medical institutions. They perform various duties and responsibilities, both clinical and administrative, as well as help patients feel at ease by answering any questions they may have.

Note: Medical assistants should not be confused with physician assistants. Physician assistants are licensed professionals trained to practice medicine and perform surgical procedures along with a physician.

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What does a Medical Assistant do?

Much of the work handled by a medical assistant is very hands-on and there's always something to do, so being able to multi-task is important. The workload can change on a daily basis, but typical activities include scheduling appointments, calling in prescriptions, helping with procedures, running tests, or taking people's vitals.

A smiling medical assistant sitting at her desk.

It is important to note that, as a medical assistant, an integral part of the day is interacting with patients in a respectful and professional manner. Emotional human connection can often be stressful for the medical assistant when caring for patients that have chronic or fatal medical conditions.

A patient may be dealing with an unexpected illness or diagnosis, they may be in pain, or they may be in financial distress due to medical bills. These are only some reasons patients may display unpleasant behavior. Regardless of the reason, it is important to try and ease the situation by keeping calm, having empathy for the situation, and offering a solution if possible.

Types of Medical Assistant Positions

Clinical Medical Assistant - focuses on patient care and the clinical aspects of the practice. They may conduct assessments, prepare patients for medical exams, assist with exams, perform minor treatments, document medical histories, take vital signs, and instruct patients on home care.

Administrative medical assistant - ensures that the business side of the practice operates smoothly. They will perform administrative tasks such as general accounting and billing, managing patient records, answering phones, making appointments, and maintaining the front desk/reception area.

Specialized Medical Assistant - works closely with a physician(s) and serves patients in a more direct way. Their job responsibilities are both patient and lab-based, and are dependant on their clinical specialty. They typically report to an administrative manager or directly to a physician. Certification is required to be a specialized medical assistant, and they typically earn higher wages and have better job opportunities.

A medical assistant for ambulatory care is very specific, and involves being in a high-pressure atmosphere. These individuals provide support in both a clinical and clerical way, and need to rely on their training and instincts to act quickly so the emergency technicians can care for the patient in a timely and effective manner. The medical assistant is one of the first people that the patient will come in contact with, and will complete the patient forms that are needed, collect the samples and specimens necessary, and perform Point of Care testing.

Are you suited to be a medical assistant?

Medical assistants have distinct personalities. They tend to be social individuals, which means they’re kind, generous, cooperative, patient, caring, helpful, empathetic, tactful, and friendly. They excel at socializing, helping others, and teaching. Some of them are also conventional, meaning they’re conscientious and conservative.

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What is the workplace of a Medical Assistant like?

A medical assistant can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, private practices, and ambulatory care. Most medical assistants work full time. Some work evenings or weekends to cover shifts in medical facilities that are always open.

According to the American Association of Medical Assistants, about 60 percent of medical assistants work in physicians’ offices, and about 15 percent in general medical and surgical hospitals, including private and state facilities. Approximately 10 percent work in offices of other health practitioners, such as chiropractors and podiatrists. Another 7 percent work in outpatient care centres, while the rest work in public and private educational services, other ambulatory health care services, state and local government agencies, medical and diagnostic laboratories, nursing care facilities, and employment services.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is some good advice for medical assistant students?

It would be a good idea to speak with, or shadow, a medical assistant if possible and ask a lot of well thought-out questions before deciding to become a medical assistant.

Once you decide, make sure the school you have chosen to go to is an accredited school, and offers certification. Also, make sure that your credits are transferable. When you get out of school, get hands-on experience by working at an internal medical practice or a family practice and strive to become a well-rounded assistant.

Remember to anticipate your patient's (and physician's) needs. Keep a note pad with you at all times to help you remember things, and document everything clearly so your co-workers don't have any trouble understanding what you write on the charts.

A big part of being a good medical assistant is having empathy. Become a good listener, be caring and sensitive to people's moods. Become non-judgmental. Always be professional, and watch out for becoming too casual (it will border on disrespectful if taken too far).

Being a medical assistant is sometimes a stressful, but always a rewarding, career. There is room for growth as well, and if you decide you'd like to move up, you can look at becoming a physician assistant or a nurse.

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What are the most common types of certified medical assistants?

Some types of certified medical assistants focus primarily on administrative responsibilities, while others are certified in clinical duties. The following are the most common types of certified medical assistants:

Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)

Certified medical administrative assistants play a very important role in managing the front desk operations of a physician’s office, hospital, or other medical facility. They make sure that the business side of the medical practice runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and causes minimal interruption to the working physician(s).

In larger facilities, these assistants work as part of a team, and are responsible for managing specific duties in a high-paced work environment. In smaller offices, certified medical administrative assistants may be the only ones attending the front desk, and are responsible for providing customer service, managing the phones, making appointments, checking in patients, maintaining patient records, filing insurance claims, inputting electronic medical coding, and performing general accounting and billing. It is also common for administrative assistants to schedule patient hospital admissions and laboratory tests.

Companies looking to hire new medical administrative assistants look very favourably on those who have earned some kind of certification. There are many formal programs that can prepare individuals to become certified medical administrative assistants - certification can be achieved in a traditional classroom setting or through one of the many online schools that are available. Regardless of the type of format chosen, it is very important to make sure the program is properly accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

The curriculum will be focused on learning office functions that mix medical processes and procedures with administrative assistant skills. Courses will cover subjects like medical terminology, medical ethics, human anatomy, human physiology, medical office insurance and billing procedures, accounting, computer applications, and pharmaceutical principles. Assistants must also stay up-to-date on all regulations and policies regarding the collection, storage, and circulation of sensitive patient data.

Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)

Certified medical assistants work in physician's offices, clinics, or other healthcare facilities, and are one of the most common types of medical assistants. These medical assistants are cross-trained so as to be able to carry out clinical, clerical, and administrative duties, and are responsible for helping a medical facility run smoothly by providing support for the working physician(s).

The daily tasks of a certified medical assistant are broad and can depend upon the type of medical facility and the particular job description. During the course of a typical day, certified medical assistants may answer telephones, schedule appointments, record medical information and test results, conduct patient interviews, prep exam rooms, take and record vital signs, collect specimens, prepare patients for X-rays, change wound dressings, explain treatment plans, arrange for laboratory tests, arrange for hospital admissions, and administer medication under a physician's supervision. Prepping exam rooms may include cleaning and sterilizing instruments, and disposing of contaminated items.

While individuals can work as medical assistants without being certified, becoming certified through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) is preferred by employers. In order to be able to sit for the Certified Medical Assistant exam, one must complete a formal medical assisting program from a school that has received accreditation from either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Certification is good for five years - recertification can be obtained through examination or by earning continuing education credits.

Curriculum focuses on learning lab techniques, medical terminology, clinical procedures, medical office procedures, ethics, patient relations, medical law, insurance processing, accounting, and record-keeping procedures.

Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)

Certified clinical medical assistants are medical support professionals that work closely with patients, nurses, and physicians to administer basic patient care. They are recognized as some of the most multifaceted and important members of any medical practice. While certified clinical medical assistants working in smaller offices may be asked to perform some administrative duties, those working in larger medical facilities focus mainly on providing patient care and being a support system for the working physician.

Certified clinical medical assistants are mostly found working by a physician’s side. Their responsibilities include: patient communication and history intake; conducting assessments, preparing patients for examinations, operations, or other procedures; assisting the physician during examinations; explaining next steps to a patient who is about to undergo a procedure; taking vital signs; performing minor treatments; instructing patients on home care; managing medical supply inventories; and ensuring that equipment, such as sterilized tools, EKG and EEG equipment are ready and available. Under the supervision of a physician, a certified clinical medical assistant may also clean and dress wounds, remove sutures, collect blood and other specimens, as well as administer medication.

Certification is available through both traditional classroom-based programs and online programs. It is important to check that the chosen program is accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Clinical medical assistants who are certified earn a higher wage and find it easier to advance in their careers than those who don't. Curriculum will cover anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, ethics, medical law, billing, bookkeeping, and office management - and typically include a clinical practice component that provides real-world experience and offers an opportunity to practice what's learned in the classroom.

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Steps to becoming a Medical Assistant

While it is possible to become a medical assistant with only a high school diploma or GED and on-the-job training, most employers prefer to hire applicants who have completed a formal education program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

Medical assistant training comes in the form of a one-year certificate or two-year associate degree program. Both include classroom and laboratory/clinical components and are generally offered by vocational or technical schools and community colleges.

Certificate programs are less costly and are designed to prepare students for relatively quick entry into the workforce. Curricula are targeted and focus on medical billing, office operations, clinical components, laboratory procedures, and medical technologies. Associate degree programs cover similar coursework – though at a more in-depth level – and also include general education courses.

Certification is not mandatory for medical assistants. Many employers, however, seek job candidates with one or more professional credentials accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. Among the recognized certifying agencies are the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), the National Healthcareer Association (NHA), the American Medical Technologists (AMT), and the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT).

What are Medical Assistants like?

Based on our pool of users, Medical Assistants tend to be predominately investigative people. This characteristic aligns with the many detailed investigative tasks demanded of these practitioners in both their administrative and clinical roles: filling out insurance forms, processing medical bills, taking patient’s blood pressure, reading other vital signs, and collecting fluid and tissue specimens for laboratory testing.

Should I become a Medical Assistant?

The varied work of a medical assistant demands a specific set of skills and abilities:

  • Ability to multi-task in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment – the job involves a myriad of both administrative and clinical responsibilities

  • Communication skills – the capacity to interact with people with ease; to listen, ask pertinent questions, and clearly convey instructions and information

  • Perception and attention to detail – skilled at observing and recording details; in this field, mistakes can have serious health and safety consequences

  • Sensitivity – the ability to recognize patient distress and discomfort and treat them with kindness and compassion

  • Ability to react calmly and effectively in emergency situations

  • Comfort with technology – depending on the setting, medical assistants use medical equipment such as autoclaves, x-ray machines, blood pressure monitors, EKG machines, and hemoglobin machines; they use different types of software for bookkeeping, billing, scheduling, and maintaining patient records

If these characteristics describe you, becoming a medical assistant may be the right decision for you. The reasons to enter the field are many:

  • Flexible and relatively inexpensive training options
  • Relatively fast entry into the job market – which is not the case for many other healthcare/medical occupations
  • Opportunity to interact with all kinds of people and contribute to their wellbeing
  • Dynamic and varied work environment
  • A potential launching pad into other medical careers
  • Job security – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is an in-demand and fast growing occupation
  • Solid rate of pay
  • Most medical assistants receive health insurance through their employers
  • A 9-to-5 work day is possible – something which is not available to many other practitioners in the medical field
  • Less stressful than many other medical roles
  • Opportunities to work with evolving technologies

Medical Assistants are also known as:
Medical Admin Assistant Certified Medical Assistant Medical Office Assistant Clinical Assistant