GUIDE: how to become a medical assistant

Last updated: April 20, 2024
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GUIDE: how to become a medical assistant
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Medical assistants have a supportive role in the healthcare industry. Their daily duties can vary, but their primary function is to help doctors.

Right now, there are around 743,500 medical assistants in the US. This is an in-demand profession with a job growth rate of 16% over the next 10 years.

Working as a medical assistant is a good way to start your healthcare career. You won't need a bachelor's degree, and you'll continue to learn on the job.

Ready for a career change? In this article, we'll tell you about medical assistants. We'll explain what they do and how to become one. Plus, we'll include a salary guide.

What is a medical assistant?

Medical assistants have a wide variety of administrative duties. For example, they may answer phone calls, update files, and schedule appointments.

Some medical assistants also have clinical responsibilities, such as preparing exam rooms and measuring vital signs.

Medical assistants can be found in different settings. The most common workplaces are physician's offices — that’s where 58% of medical assistants are employed.

Approximately one-quarter work in hospitals or clinics — 15% of medical assistants work in hospitals, and 9% are employed by outpatient care centers.

Medical assistants who work in larger healthcare organizations might specialize in a specific area. For example, there are dedicated administrative medical assistants, clinical medical assistants, pediatric medical assistants, and podiatry medical assistants.

This job is usually full-time, but part-time positions may also be available. In some settings, evening, weekend, and holiday shifts may be required, so you can expect to work during non-traditional hours.

What's the difference between a medical assistant and a medical office assistant?

You may see both medical assistant and medical office assistant positions advertised. But there are differences between these two roles.

A medical office assistant only does administrative tasks. They usually sit behind a reception desk and answer phones, schedule appointments, check insurance forms, and process payments. Data entry and stock management may also be part of their daily workloads.

However, a medical assistant can take care of clerical and clinical duties. While they can do many of the same duties as a medical office assistant, they can also help with basic medical care.

What does a medical assistant do?

Medical assistants have a wide range of duties. Here are some of their most common daily tasks:

Schedule appointments

​​Depending on the medical facility, these team members may answer phones and schedule appointments.

This daily administrative task requires excellent organizational and communication skills. Appointments need to be scheduled correctly, with the right amount of time allocated for each patient.

The medical assistant may call or text the patient to confirm before the actual day of their appointment. If there's a cancellation or change of date, they'll need to update the calendar.

If a doctor is planning time off or calls in sick, the medical assistant would record this information on the schedule.

In addition to patient appointments, doctors may need to schedule meetings with other healthcare professionals, and it’s the medical assistant that would plan out their meeting times.

Update patient files

Accurate patient records are important. Knowing each patient's full medical history can help the doctor provide the best possible care.

These days, most medical records are electronic, but there can also be traditional paper files. Electronic health records can be updated in real time and include everything from personal details to health conditions to medications.

Medical assistants can update these files during or after appointments. If the doctor needs to refer a patient to another specialist or modify the treatment plan, the details can be uploaded.

Anyone who views the file will get the full picture.

Assist physicians

Medical assistants can provide basic patient care. When a patient arrives, the assistant can show them to the treatment room and give them a gown if required.

Medical assistants can also check the patient's vital signs to ready them for the doctor. For example, they can record their body temperature and check their pulse and blood pressure.

They may also weigh and measure patients and ask them background questions.

If the physician needs support with a task, the medical assistant can be there. They can set up treatment rooms and restock supplies. Medical assistants sterilize equipment and can pass instruments to doctors during minor surgeries.

Medical assistants can also perform basic medical tasks such as removing stitches, providing wound care, and labeling blood samples for laboratory testing.

Administer medications

Medical assistants can administer medications in clinical settings. This task is only allowed in some states, and sometimes training or certain qualifications are required.

For example, the assistant may be asked to give a patient an injection or oral medication under a physician's supervision. They need to double-check the details, including the patient's name and the required dosage.

Medical assistants may also administer immunizations, including flu shots or scheduled vaccines — though additional training may be required.

How much does a medical assistant make?

What about salary? In the US, the average medical assistant salary is $37,190 per year or $17.88 per hour.

A medical assistant's income can vary between workplaces. For example, the average salary for a medical assistant working in an outpatient clinic is $38,270 per year. If you work in a hospital, it's slightly less at $37,800 per year.

Those employed by a physician's office make an average of $37,150 per year.

Keep in mind: where you live will impact your earning potential. There are salary variations between states.

Washington is the highest-paying state, where the average yearly salary is $47,320. The District of Columbia is next, where medical assistants make around $46,690 per year.

In Alaska, the average medical assistant salary is $46,390, and in California, it's $44,780 per year. Another state with an above-average salary is Massachusetts, where medical assistants make around $44,200 per year.

Your experience, technical skills, and qualifications can also affect your wage.

How to become a medical assistant

Do you want a rewarding career without having to spend years studying for a bachelor's degree or a master’s? A job as a medical assistant might be a good fit for you. Here's how you can get there:

1. Get the basics

Medical assistant jobs can have different requirements. However, employers usually expect a high school diploma or equivalent. There may also be a minimum age requirement, such as 18 or 21 years old.

Sometimes, there are entry-level jobs available, and these come with on-the-job training. However, getting hired can be competitive.

Any healthcare or administrative experience will be beneficial. For example, if you've worked as a secretary, receptionist, or nurse aide, that can improve your chances of getting a job. Volunteer work can also help you stand out.

Before you commit to being a medical assistant, think about whether you’ll thrive in the role or not. For example, are you a people person? Do you want to work closely with healthcare professionals? Do you have computer skills?

2. Complete a medical assistant program

As mentioned, there can be entry-level positions available. However, most employers prefer some additional education.

A completed medical assistant program will not only look good on your resume and give you a competitive edge, but it'll also give you important skills that you'll use in your job. Plus, training can be the difference between working as a medical assistant and a medical office assistant.

Medical assistant programs can vary in length. For example, your local community college may offer a short course you can take to boost your skills. Look for courses that cover medical billing, medical terminology, and medical assistance.

The other option is to enroll in an associate degree program. Some of the top options include medical assisting, medical administration, and nursing. An associate degree can open up more doors.

3. Think about certification

Another way to impress a potential employer is with certification. This step isn't essential, but it's recommended to prove your knowledge.

You'll usually need to pass a certification exam to complete this step. The most common format is a multiple-choice questionnaire. You'll also need to pay an application fee.

There are minimum requirements you'll need to ‌meet before you can take this exam. If you've completed a medical assistant program, you'll need to submit your diploma or certificate.

Alternatively, if you've been working as a medical assistant for two years or more, you can send proof of your supervised experience.

There are different professional organizations that offer certifications. Here are five of them:

  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)

  • Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)

  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)

  • Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)

Your certification will need to be renewed once a year, and this comes with a fee.

4. Get job training

Most employers offer hands-on training with supervision from an experienced team member. Even if you've completed a medical assisting program, there is still a lot to learn.

Each healthcare provider has unique processes and tools. You might need to learn how to use a dedicated computer system or follow certain customer-care processes.

Your required tasks can also vary between settings. For example, a medical assistant who works for a surgeon will have different responsibilities than one who works for a podiatrist.

With ongoing training, you can continue to expand your skill set. Consider taking short online courses, and keep learning from your employer.

5. Grow your network

A medical assistant position can kickstart your career in the healthcare field. If you want to open up new job opportunities, think about how you can grow your professional network.

You can make valuable contacts when you complete an education program. Plus, you'll be working closely with licensed physicians and other healthcare professionals. Get to know them, and leave a good impression by completing your work to a high standard.

Why? Because expanding your professional network will help you gain mentors who'll give you advice and support your healthcare career. The right people will be happy to give you a reference — and they may even know someone who's hiring.

6. Think about career pathways

A medical assistant job can be a long-term career. However, some people use their experience in this position to find other roles.

If you have an associate degree and hands-on experience, you'll have more options, including leadership positions. It's not uncommon for a medical assistant to become a practice manager.

Or you can complete another training program. There are plenty of options, such as a degree in nursing or paramedics. You could also become a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant.

What skills do medical assistants need?

Many of the skills you'll need for this job are soft skills. For example, you'll need excellent interpersonal skills to deal with both patients and healthcare workers.

Plus, you'll need time management, organizational skills, and problem-solving skills.

You'll also need computer skills to work in the medical assisting field. Some of your job duties will be administrative, and you'll use a computer on a daily basis. Fast, accurate typing and experience using Microsoft Office and Google Workspace will be an advantage.

Furthermore, you'll need math skills for data entry and billing tasks, as well as medical knowledge, to provide the best possible care to patients.

Where to get a job as a medical assistant

Want to start your career in healthcare? Start your job search by browsing medical assistant positions on our job board.

While you're there, create a free Jobcase account. You can create your profile, set up job alerts, chat in our community discussions, and use our resume builder.

Now is a good time to reach out to anyone in your professional network. Can a contact vouch for you by giving you a reference? Or do they know anyone who is hiring in your area?

Want to get some administrative experience? Try receptionist, office assistant, or executive assistant roles.

Becoming a medical assistant

If you get a job as a medical assistant, you'll perform a mix of clerical and clinical duties. For example, your day may involve scheduling appointments, updating patient records, assisting physicians, and administering medications.

The road to becoming a medical assistant can vary. There can be entry-level jobs available that involve hands-on training. However, most employers prefer someone who's completed a training program. A certification can also improve your chances of getting hired.

You'll also need a few key skills. These include communication skills, medical knowledge, computer skills, and organizational skills.

Want to check out what jobs are available in your area? Head to our job board. And before you go, visit our resource center for interview and resume tips.

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