How to Become a Medical Assistant
If you’re looking for a quick but rewarding way to enter the medical field, becoming a medical assistant might be the perfect option for you.
A medical assistant is responsible for a variety of entry-level tasks that may seem menial or basic, but are crucial to the processes maintained by medical professionals to help patients. Such tasks may include intake questions, taking vitals, collecting samples for lab tests, and assisting both doctors and patients during check-ups or procedures. Learn how to become a medical assistant with our step-by-step guide below, and consider an online medical assisting program to make the process even easier.
One of the benefits of starting a career as a medical assistant is that it requires a minimal amount of schooling to enter the workforce. A medical assistant certificate or diploma program and an associate’s degree program in medical assisting are designed to prepare students for a career in healthcare. However, there are some key differences between the program types.
- Certificate or Diploma: A medical assistant certificate or diploma is the result of a postsecondary education program that prepares students for entry-level positions in medical assisting. It can take anywhere from 6-18 months to complete, though it is typically finished in less than one year. The curriculum covers coursework in medical terminology, clinical procedures, pharmacology, medical billing and coding, and may include a hands-on externship.
- Associate's Degree: An associate’s degree program in medical assisting is a more comprehensive program that takes approximately two years to complete. It includes more in-depth coursework in medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, and other subjects related to healthcare. Additionally, an associate’s degree may provide more opportunities for advancement within the healthcare field.
Ultimately, the choice between a medical assistant certificate/diploma or associate’s degree program depends on a student’s career goals and individual circumstances. Each program type is often found at community colleges and trade schools.
Online Medical Assistant Programs
Whether you choose to enroll in a medical assistant certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree program, online options are abundant. These distance-learning options can save students both time and money.
Online medical assistant programs can be particularly attractive to students who work or have other family commitments, as the coursework can often be completed when and where the student chooses. Online medical assisting certificate, diploma, and associate’s degree programs follow an identical curriculum to their campus-based counterparts.
However, for students who want more interaction with other students and professors, or who desire more hands-on learning modalities, traditional campus-based medical assistant programs may be the better choice.
Unlike most medical professionals, you will not usually be required to hold licensure or certification as a medical assistant. However, since many employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants, you can become certified if you want the extra practice and the ability to list it on your resume. If you decide that becoming certified is the route you want to take, you will need to go through a six-to-eight-week certified medical assistant (CMA) program. For more information about education and certification in your state, see our state-by-state guide on medical assistant schools.
To become certified as a medical assistant, you'll need to pass a certification examination such as the CMA (AAMA) exam. There will be an application process as well as a fee of $250.00 for non-graduates, and a fee of $125.00 for recent graduates.
Many healthcare employers offer on-the-job training for medical assistants, which can include a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training. In these programs, individuals will typically learn about medical terminology, medical ethics, and basic clinical and administrative tasks. They may also be required to complete continuing education courses to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in the field. On-the-job training can be an excellent option for individuals who are looking to enter the healthcare field but may not have the time or financial resources to pursue a formal degree program.
The application process for a medical assistant job is pretty straightforward. As discussed earlier in this article, there are no official education requirements (apart from a high school diploma), no certifications needed, and no experience necessary. Oftentimes training will be provided on-sight.
What Careers Can I Pursue With a Medical Assistant Degree?
Simply put, medical assistants work in the medical field—typically helping both patients and doctors in a variety of scenarios, including intake appointments, in laboratories, or during procedures. There are three types of medical assistant careers, each with its own set of duties and responsibilities. These include:
Administrative Medical Assistants:
- Administrative Medical Assistants are responsible for tasks such as scheduling appointments, maintaining patient records, and managing billing and insurance claims.
- They are often the first point of contact for patients, greeting them and checking them in for their appointments.
- They possess strong organizational and communication skills, as well as knowledge of medical terminology and basic office procedures.
Clinical Medical Assistants:
- Clinical Medical Assistants assist physicians and other healthcare providers with patient care.
- They take vital signs, such as blood pressure and temperature, and prepare patients for exams and procedures.
- They may also administer medications, perform basic laboratory tests, and assist with medical procedures.
Specialized Medical Assistants:
- Have additional training in a specific area of healthcare, such as cardiology, dermatology, endocrinology, and more.
- Perform tasks specific to their area of specialization, such as preparing patients for eye exams or assisting with foot and ankle surgeries.
- Must possess specialized knowledge and skills in their area of focus.
Where Can I Work With a Medical Assistant Degree?
As a medical assistant, you will likely find yourself working in one of many medical facilities including:
- Doctor's offices
- Medical labs
- Outpatient care centers
Due to the little education or experience required, most medical assistant salaries are unfortunately low compared to the rest of the medical field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical assistant salaries average at about $37,190 per year. This typically will go up with more experience, education, or certification should you decide those things are right for you.