CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a medical assistant.
Is becoming a medical assistant right for me?
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Prospective medical assistants can begin preparing for their career while in high school. Relevant and helpful electives include:
• Anatomy and physiology
• Computer applications
• Introduction to health care
• Safety and first aid
Volunteer experience in a healthcare setting is also very valuable.
Some medical assistants are trained on the job, but this practice is far less common than in the past. Nowadays, the common path to entering the field is via formal education. Training programs, generally available at technical and vocational schools, are typically offered at the certificate or diploma level, as well as the Associate’s Degree level.
Associate’s Degree programs encompass slightly more advanced training compared to certificate and diploma programs. They are also recommended for students who think they may wish to eventually earn a more advanced degree in a health-related field.
To ensure that their selected program teaches the fundamental concepts necessary to succeed in the profession, students should be sure to enrol in a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Certificate or Diploma
Common components of these programs include the following:
Medical Office Terminology
Medical terms and healthcare vocabulary needed to effectively work and communicate in a medical office; basics of human anatomy
Ability to understand, spell, abbreviate, and use medical terminology
Medical and Insurance Billing
The basics of the health insurance industry and how insurance claims are submitted and processed; diagnosis and medical procedural coding
Understanding of the processes to submit medical and insurance forms
Understanding of how and why forms are prepared in a certain way
Introduction to all aspects of the laboratory process typical of medical offices, including laboratory testing techniques and documentation procedures
Knowledge of how to perform, handle, and process frequently conducted medical tests, such as drawing blood, sample collection, and immunology testing
Medical Assisting – Clinical
Completion of a certain number of hours working in a relevant medical setting
First-hand medical assisting experience greeting patients, recording vital signs, and managing a medical office
Common components of these programs include the following:
Study of the human circulatory system and the techniques to properly and safely collect blood samples
In-depth understanding of how to draw blood and the underlying physiological basis for blood-drawing techniques
Ability to operate equipment used
Understanding of the legal and safety rules that must be followed
The basics of human behavioral science
Basic understanding of the human brain – memory, learning, mental development, and consciousness – and how it can affect behavior
Ability to analyze and interpret data and trends
Ethics and the Law in Healthcare
An overview of ethical and legal principles related to healthcare: documentation procedures, privacy requirements, patient bill of rights
Identifying and handling moral, ethical, and legal dilemmas commonly encountered in the medical profession
Background of pharmaceuticals and drug laws; administering medications
How to safely deliver medications, calculate dosages, read drug labels, and prevent unintended drug interactions
Certification & Resources
While certification is not required in the field, many employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants. For this reason, most accredited medical assisting schools tailor their curriculum so that students will be prepared to sit for a certification examination upon graduation. When choosing a school, students should ask these questions:
- For which certification exam does the school prepare its graduates?
- What is the school’s certification exam pass rate?
- How does the school’s pass rate compare to the national average?
These are the most widely recognized and sought after certifications:
- Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) offered by the National Healthcareer Association (NHA)
- Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) offered by the NHA
- National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) offered by the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)
- Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) offered by the American Medical Technologists (AMT)
For newly graduated and certified medical assistants, the key to finding that first job is often thinking outside the box. Expand your job search beyond physicians’ offices and clinics and apply with specialists such as chiropractors, podiatrists, obstetricians, and others.
Frequently Asked Questions
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
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.
Steps to becoming a Medical Assistant
To become a sought after medical assistant, complete an accredited certificate or degree program and upon graduation pursue professional certification.
How long does it take to become a Medical Assistant?
• Medical assistant certificate or diploma programs last about one year. • Medical assistant Associate’s Degree programs last about two years.
How to become 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’s Degree programs. 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’s 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).