Medical assistants are an essential part of any medical office team. If you are interested in starting an exciting and rewarding career as a medical assistant, it will usually take somewhere between nine months and two years to meet the qualifications. In this article, we go over the main duties and career outlook for medical assistants, how long it takes to become one and what your different educational options are based on your career goals.
What is a medical assistant?
Medical assistants work with doctors to help provide various health services to patients. They most often work in outpatient facilities or medical offices rather than in hospitals. Their job involves a combination of medical and administrative tasks including collecting lab specimens, drawing blood, answering phones, scheduling appointments and explaining treatments to patients.
Medical assistants must be capable of performing a wide variety of tasks and have a friendly demeanor to communicate with patients. They also need to be excellent multitaskers and able to adapt to a job that can change from day to day depending on what tasks need to be done.
They are responsible for making sure the medical office or clinic runs smoothly by proactively taking on any duties that may be needed. They work under the direct supervision of the doctor and are expected to both respond to requests and anticipate needs.
Many medical assistants specialize in a particular area such as administrative or clinical tasks. This is especially true in larger offices with multiple medical assistants. Even when specialized, they are still expected to have the flexibility and knowledge to take on any of the tasks that can be delegated to a medical assistant. It's a fast-paced, frequently-changing career that can be very exciting and rewarding for those who are passionate about helping people and enjoy a challenge.
For those with ambitious career goals, beginning as a medical assistant could provide the opportunity to advance into a more supervisory or administrative role. With some additional credentials, it is also great experience for those seeking a career in nursing.
Read more: Learn About Being a Medical Assistant
How long does it take to become a medical assistant?
Fulfilling the prerequisites to become a medical assistant will take somewhere between nine months and two years. In some cases, you might even be able to start a career right away with a medical office or clinic that offers on-the-job training. However, that option is not offered by every employer. It's far more common to go through vocational training first.
The length of that vocational training will last between nine months and two years depending on where you get it. Institutions that provide specific medical assisting programs can be as short as nine months because they focus exclusively on preparing you for the tasks you'll be doing as a medical assistant.
Institutions that don't have a medical assistant program will usually require you to complete a full associate degree with a focus on medical assisting. This will take two years. While it does take more time, having an associate degree does potentially opens you up to more opportunities and greater earning potential so it is worth considering.
Related: What Is On-the-Job Training?
Education levels for medical assistants
Beyond your high school diploma or GRE and the medical assistant training, there are no specific credentials or licenses needed to become a medical assistant. However, a strong educational background is a great way to make your resume stand out and improve your opportunities for career advancement.
Some schools offer specialized medical assistant certificate or diploma programs. These programs usually take between nine months to a year to complete and include coursework that covers medical terminology, transcription, ethics and clinical procedures. In many programs, there will even be a special CMA preparation and review course. You will learn more about the CMA below. When choosing a vocational program, it is important to make sure that it is accredited by the AAMA. If it isn't accredited, it likely won't be recognized by employers.
While it is not legally required in any state to go through training before applying for a medical assistant job, more and more employers are only willing to consider applicants who have completed a training program.
Although not as common as a certificate or diploma program, there are more and more associate degree programs being offered by colleges and universities. These programs take two years and often include some form of an internship or clinical practice as part of the curriculum. One of the biggest advantages to this option is that by the time you have your degree, you will likely also have a few months of on-the-job experience in the form of an internship or practical training program.
If your college does not offer a specific medical assistant program, an Associate Degree in Health Science, Health Administration or a similar field will also be accepted by most employers. One of these alternatives will not make you eligible for the CMA (see below) but it will be an impressive addition to your resume and may encourage employers to offer you on-the-job training.
Getting an associate degree, particularly in a medical assistant-specific program, is the best route for those who hope to ultimately move up into a management or administrative role later on in their career.
Although it's not legally required, a CMA (Certified Medical Assistant) certification is strongly recommended as it really helps your application stand out as you search for a medical assistant position. The CMA certification is offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) as a way for medical assistants to demonstrate their skill and knowledge in the field.
To get certified, you will need to take the CMA exam but only candidates who have completed an accredited medical assistant training program are eligible to take it. So, this path is only open to those who have already completed vocational training or an associate degree program accepted by AAMA.
The CMA is a 200-question exam covering a broad range of topics related to health care delivery and the various responsibilities of a medical assistant. You will be tested on your understanding of the following content areas:
- Medical law and regulatory guidelines
- Medical ethics
- Risk management, quality assurance and safety
- Medical terminology
The certification is recognized and valid across all states so it will make you a highly competitive candidate no matter where you go. If you have completed the necessary education or are planning to enroll in an accredited program, it is strongly recommended that you take this exam to get officially certified.
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