What Is A Medical Assistant?

Doctor’s offices and other medical practices are busy places and their success depends on medical assistants to take care of the routine tasks that other employees on staff cannot tend to. Their duties will differ from one location to another depending on the type and size of the facility or office they work in.

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At a Glance

Medical Assistant TrainingOther Job Titles: Medical Office Assistant, Assistant Medical Officer, Clinical Assistant
Salary Range: $20,000-$40,000; Median $29,000
Education/Training Required:
High school diploma or equivalency
Desired Skills/Aptitude:
Interpersonal and communication skills; technical skills to use equipment for measuring vital signs; computer skills; detail-oriented
Not required but certification is available
Locations with Best Opportunities:
California, Idaho, District of Columbia, Connecticut
Employment Outlook:
Expected growth by 31% to 2020 (faster than average)
Opportunities for Advancement:
With continuing education, any medical field is open; Continuing education allows physicians to use medical assistants on tasks of greater complexity provided they are allowed to by state law.

What a Medical Assistant Does

It is important to recognize that a medical assistant is not the same as a physician’s assistant. Physician’s assistants work more with doctors in diagnosing and treating patients.

A medical assistant performs a variety of tasks to keep a clinic or other medical practice running smoothly and efficiently. Their responsibilities can be categorized in the following tasks groups of a medical facility:

  • Administrative
  • Patient care
  • Operations
  • Laboratory

They handle basic administrative tasks that are necessary in a medical office. This includes duties such as updating medical records and scheduling appointments. They may also deal with suppliers, maintenance personnel, and anything else that a doctor needs. Increasingly, with more healthcare facilities using electronic claims submissions, the medical assistant may be involved with the proper coding of those claims using CPT, ICD, and HCPCs code terminology.

Assistants are involved in patient care and usually are the most visible to the many that come to a facility each day. Any problems a patient may have will typically be seen to by an assistant.

They are also on the front lines of office operations. Sometimes you will find them doing lab sample processing, taking vital signs, arranging procedures, and preparing patients for exams. Using them on these tasks depends upon their level of training.

A medical assistant may be specialized in larger healthcare facilities. For example, there might be those who do strictly paperwork, claims transmissions, and recordkeeping. These would be classified as administrative medical assistants.

Then, those who work more on the clinical/laboratory side would be classified as clinical medical assistants. The latter would be responsible for such tasks as sterilizing medical equipment, drawing blood, removing stitches, and instructing patients on medication.

The Workplace

Medical assistants work mostly in doctor’s offices and healthcare clinics. In doctor’s offices, they are usually fulltime employees. In hospital and other 24-hour facilities, they may work shifts.

Education and Certification

If in high school, a student who desires to become a medical assistant should take courses in anatomy, biology, and chemistry.

Most states do not require formal post-secondary education to be a medical assistant. However, you improve your chances of being hired by completing a certificate program or associate’s degree program through a vocational or trade school.

Usually, there is no certification requirement for medical assistants but will help with employment opportunities as well. Certification is available in four ways:

  • CCMA (Certified Clinical Medical Assistant through the National Health Career Association)
  • CMA (Certified Medical Assistant through the American Association of Medical Assistants or AAMA)
  • RMA (Registered Medical Assistant through the American Medical Technologists)
  • NCMA (National Certified Medical Assistant through the National Center for Competency Testing)

The only certification that requires post-secondary education is the CMA. The training program must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).