How to Become a Medical Assistant

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated February 22, 2021

Published February 4, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Medical assistants have an important role in health care teams for all types of medical facilities. They perform a mix of medical and administrative tasks, helping the rest of the medical staff and ensuring the facility remains well-organized. Becoming a medical assistant requires specific education and training. In this article, we discuss what a medical assistant does, how to become a medical assistant and answers to frequently asked questions about this position.

What does a medical assistant do?

The exact role of a medical assistant depends on their specialty, the size of the medical facility and its geographic location. The most common duties for a medical assistant are:

  • Recording patient personal information and medical history

  • Helping doctors with patient examinations

  • Administering treatment in the form of medications and injections to patients, as instructed by medical doctors and as permitted by state laws

  • Measuring and recording patient vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure

  • Booking patient appointments

  • Preparing samples for laboratory tests

  • Updating patient medical records

Larger medical facilities typically employ specialized medical assistants for either administrative duties or clinical work.

Related: Learn About Being a Medical Assistant

Average salary

Most medical assistants work full-time positions in hospitals, physicians' offices, clinics, nursing care facilities or home health care services. Salaries for medical assistants depend on several factors, such as work experience, role, employer, specialization and geographical location. The national average salary for a medical assistant in the United States is $14.85 per hour, while some salaries range from $7.25 to $27.90 per hour.

How to become a medical assistant

Becoming a medical assistant typically requires specific education, on-the-job training and certifications. These are the steps you need to take to become a medical assistant:

  1. Pursue education

  2. Get specialized training

  3. Get certified

  4. Prepare your resume

1. Pursue education

There are several ways to gain the necessary education to become a medical assistant:

  • On-the-job training: Choosing this path to become a medical assistant is the fastest, but requires finding a medical doctor who is willing to hire and train you. Most employers in the medical field prefer to hire medical assistants with formal education and certifications, but some doctors hire aspiring medical assistants for on-the-job training.

  • Campus education: Many higher educational facilities, such as universities, colleges and technical schools, have medical assistant training programs. Joining an on-campus medical assistant training program is more time-consuming, as it requires you to physically attend all classes and laboratory sessions, but the structured learning environment and direct interactions with teachers and fellow students can be highly beneficial.

  • Online education: If you want to specialize in medical assistance but lack the time to attend an on-campus educational program, an alternative is completing an online training program. It is less expensive and less time-consuming, as it allows you to complete all your courses over the internet.

  • Hybrid training programs: If you lack the time to complete a full on-campus medical assistant training program but would like to learn by attending laboratory training sessions and interacting with teachers and students, a mix between classic and online education may be the right path.

2. Get specialized training

Aside from the knowledge gained through classroom and online learning, medical assistant students also have to complete an externship, which is a way of getting practical clinical experience and putting their newly-acquired knowledge into practice.

An externship will expose you to real-life medical situations and give you the opportunity to observe and assist medical professionals, such as doctors and registered nurses. Given the high complexity and many variables in any medical profession, theoretical education has to be followed by practical experience in order to understand the realities of the medical profession. Most educational facilities will offer students externship opportunities at local medical practices and clinics.

3. Get certified

Obtaining a certification is not officially required to work as a medical assistant, with the exception of highly specialized roles, such as X-ray assistants or phlebotomy assistants. However, due to the large competition in the field, many employers prefer to hire certified applicants.

The most widely-recognized medical assistant certifications are:

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA): This is one of the most highly-rated national certifications for medical assistants and it is issued by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). The exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and must be retaken every five years.

  • Registered Medical Assistant (RMA): The RMA is issued by the American Medical Technologists (AMT). Aside from recent graduates who have completed their externship, the certification is also open to graduates of a formal medical services training program within the United States Armed Forces, full-time medical assistants with high school education and on-the-job training and medical assisting program instructors. The exam consists of 210 multiple-choice questions.

  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA): Issued by the National Center for Competency Testing (NCTT), this credential is open to recent graduates, foreign medical doctors and registered nurses, medical assistant instructors, graduates of a formal medical services training program within the United States Armed Forces and full-time medical assistants with on-the-job training. The exam consists of 150 multiple-choice questions.

  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA): This certificate is issued by the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) and is open to high school graduates who have completed a training program or who have at least one year of on-the-job medical assisting experience. The exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions.

  • Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA): Issued by the National Healthcareer Association, this certification focuses on the administrative duties common to the medical assistant role. It is open to high school graduates who have completed a training program or who have at least one year of on-the-job medical assisting experience. The exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions.

4. Prepare your resume

Once you have completed all the requirements, such as education, training and certifications, you can prepare your professional medical assistant resume. It should reflect all your acquired education and training, while also highlighting the skills and experience that recommend you for the position. The cover letter that you send along with your resume should be written specifically for each potential employer, as each medical facility has its own specializations.

Frequently asked questions

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about being a medical assistant:

  • What are the most common specializations for medical assistants?

  • Are medical assistants in demand?

  • What is the difference between a medical assistant and a physician assistant?

  • What are the main personality traits needed to successfully perform the job of a physician assistant?

  • What is the typical work schedule for medical assistants?

What are the most common specializations for medical assistants?

The most common specializations and their main tasks are:

  • Administrative medical assistants mostly deal with administrative duties, such as scheduling patient appointments, answering telephones and emails or filling out insurance forms and patient information.

  • Clinical medical assistants have varying duties, depending on the state they work in and the nature of the medical facility. They usually perform laboratory tests, sterilize medical instruments, maintain sanitary standards, educate patients on special diets and treatments, prepare patients for medical examinations and draw blood samples from patients.

Some medical assistants are specialized in a certain medical field. Examples of such specialized medical assistants are:

  • Orthopedic medical assistants work with orthopedic doctors, assisting them by performing different tasks, such as applying splints, giving medications and bandaging patients' wounds.

  • Ophthalmic medical assistants and optometric assistants assist ophthalmologists and optometrists by providing eye care-related tasks, such as instructing patients how to use contact lenses or assisting in eye surgery.

Are medical assistants in demand?

There is currently a high demand for medical assistants throughout the country, with the trend expecting to continue over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 23% growth for medical assistants until 2028, mainly due to the rising number of chronic illnesses and the number of people over the age of 65.

What is the difference between a medical assistant and a physician assistant?

Medical assistants perform medical and administrative tasks under a physician's direct supervision. Physician assistants perform examinations, issue diagnostics and recommend treatment to patients independently, even when the physician is not present.

What are the main personality traits needed to successfully perform the job of a physician assistant?

Successful medical assistants typically have strong interpersonal skills, are able to successfully perform under high levels of stress and have a natural empathy for their patients. They also must possess a high attention to detail and have excellent hand-eye coordination.

What is the typical work schedule for medical assistants?

Most medical assistants work in full-time positions, with the typical work week having 40 hours. However, due to the permanent need for on-call medical professionals in many medical facilities, they may be required to work evenings, night shifts or weekends. A minority of medical assistants work part-time.

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