Everything you need to know to become a Certified Medical Assistant

The healthcare sector is expanding at a fast pace. A growing and aging population worldwide, along with the rising prevalence of chronic diseases implies that the healthcare sector is set to grow at a faster rate in comparison to the other sectors. The healthcare sector is also witnessing an increase in infrastructure investments, coupled with technological advancements and evolving care models. This has already led to increased labor costs and shortage in skilled professionals. According to the data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2026 the healthcare industry will add around 4 million new jobs in the United States This accounts for about one- third of the total job growth in the country. The fastest-growing sectors include healthcare support occupations and healthcare practitioners and technical occupations. It is not just the health care itself that is expected to grow faster than any other industry, but within the health care some sectors are forecast to grow at rates faster than others. Physician Assistant, Medical Assistant, Nurses, are some job titles among the ones that would have a huge demand in the coming years.  When it comes to job stability and higher than average earning potential, any sector within health care would be a good career choice.

When we think about a successful career in the healthcare field, we immediately think about doctors and nurses. However, apart from these two well-known professions, there are many different career opportunities in the medical field. Some of them are very well-paid and do not require years and years of study. One such career choice is to become a ‘Medical Assistant’.

Who is a ‘Medical Assistant?’

A Medical Assistant is someone who ensures the smooth running of a medical office by acting as a bridge between various healthcare professionals and the patients. A Medical Assistant position is one of the rare roles where one has the opportunity to work in both patient care and administrative work. A lot of other roles in healthcare are either strictly in the clinical side or on the administrative side. For instance, a nurse who works only in patient care or a Medical coder who works in back-office, and never gets to meet patients. This uniqueness makes being a Medical Assistant an appealing career option to many.

A ‘Medical Assistant’ role is quite different from ‘Certified Nursing Aides’ or ‘Licensed Practicing Nurses’ or ‘Physician Assistants.’ The other roles are focussed more on patient care, or working closely with patients. 

Medical Assistants people who are responsible for the everyday activities in a clinical office. Medical assistants acquire jobs with the titles such as "Medical Office Assistant", "Clinical Assistant", "Assistant Medical Officer", or "Paediatric Assistant". To put it simply Medical Assistants, ensure that a healthcare centre runs smoothly by facilitating various activities for the patients and healthcare professionals.  

Roles and responsibilities of a Medical Assistant:

What are the activities a Medical Assistant performs in a day? Where do they work? What are their roles and responsibilities? The answers to these questions are pertinent to someone who is planning to embark a career as a Medical Assistant. In fact, a Medical Assistant’s role is one of the most versatile roles in the healthcare industry.    Medical Assistants are responsible for a variety of duties at the medical office, and these responsibilities involve both clinical duties and administrative roles. Some of the regular administrative duties of a Medical Assistant include, working in the front office, completing a variety of administrative tasks, such as obtaining patient records and test results, coordinating daily administrative tasks, preparing treatment rooms for examinations. Administrative duties can also include answering telephones, greeting patients, scheduling appointments, filing insurance paperwork and updating medical records.

Some of the clinical aspect of their responsibilities are taking vital signs, counseling patients on medical procedures. Other clinical tasks might include collecting and preparing lab specimens, performing basic lab tests and sterilizing medical equipment. Some medical assistants work one-on-one with patients while drawing blood, administering medications, advising on treatment plans, prescribing a specialized diet, removing sutures or changing dressings. Other duties might include ordering supplies and equipment for the medical office.

Medical Assistants are also responsible for assisting practitioners during medical procedures. The majority of medical assistants work in a physicians’ offices, while the others find work in state, local and private hospitals and outpatient care centers.

Medical Assistant professionals often work under the direction of an office manager or physician perform a variety of administrative and clinical tasks. A Medical Assistant’s role is to act as a liaison between the patients and healthcare professionals. Medical assistants play both clinical and administrative roles. Their position is unique because of this dual responsibility, as most healthcare professionals either work in patient care or in administrative positions. Medical assisting is a highly rewarding profession that provides some of the most flexible career opportunities in health care.

Drawing blood and phone triage:

One important question that lingers regarding a Medical Assistant’s career is that, ‘are they allowed to draw blood?’ Basic phlebotomy, which means inserting a needle in a vein or capillary to collect blood is taught to Medical Assistants during their training. This is an important aspect of many health screenings and procedures that physicians conduct. Certified Medical Assistants who have received proper training are allowed to draw blood. This procedure of drawing blood is within the "scope of practice" of the medical assistant profession. A Medical Assistant can pursue further education and get specialized certification in phlebotomy. This would open up career opportunities in areas such as working in a lab or in a medical practice where the work requires someone to routinely take blood samples.

Another question that often gets ask is that can Medical Assistants do Phone Triage? Medical Assistants are expected to do administrative work which might also involve answering phone calls.  Medical Assistants might also be expected to do Phone Triage as a part of their duties. Most offices have a phone triage system in place, with specific steps, guidelines and contact information for escalation. Based on the geographic location, Medical Assistants can work on Phone Triage. But this depends on the laws that govern the country/state where one is employed. 

Career and income opportunities:

The Medical Assistants who are Allied healthcare professionals have great income opportunities, compared to other professionals. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the average annual salary for a medical assistant was $33,610 in 2018. Though this might be considered as a lot less than a doctor’s income, we might have to consider the fact that the Medical Administrative Assistant positions do not require multiple years of formal education and training. This is just the median, which means there is potential to earn more. Employee benefits are often considered an important component to medical assistant salaries. According to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) conducted a survey in the year 2013, found out that 87 percent of all full-time respondents reported receiving some kind of benefits from their employer. Of those medical assistants receiving benefits, nearly 74 percent reported receiving major medical coverage, and another 61 percent reported receiving vision coverage.

A certified Medical Assistant earns quite well. The career choice of becoming a Medical Assistant is quite lucrative considering the fact that one does not have to spend many years in order to get certified. Employers prefer to choose candidates who showcase certificates from accredited institutions. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) conducted a survey in the year 2013 found, among other things, that there was a significant gap in compensation between medical assistants without certification and medical assistants who held the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) certification. The Average salary for Clinical Medical Assistants who were certified full-time medical assistants is around $15.35/hour or $29,889/year as opposed to the $14.29/hour or $27,914/year.

There are many factors that affect the salary of a Medical Assistant. One important factor is the geographic location. Some states pay more to Medical Assistants than others.    According to the salary data of Medical Professionals in NYC the average Medical Assistant salary in New York, NY is $43,466, with a range typically between $40,068 and $46,933. According to the 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for a certified medical assistant in New Jersey is $35,840. Depending on your location in the New Jersey State, salary opportunities can vary. The range of Medical Assistants salary in New Carolina falls between $31,591 and $37,003 per annum. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Ohio’s medical assistants earn a median annual salary of $27,980. Certified Medical Assistants also find higher than average salaries in Chicago, Illinois (8.8% more) and Dallas, Texas (4.0% more). The average Medical Assistant salary in California is $40,125 but the range typically falls between $36,988 and $43,326.

Similarly, the work setting where one is placed also plays an important role in determining the salary of a Medical Assistant. For example, MAs in private practices tend to make less than at outpatient clinics, and metropolitan areas usually provide higher wages than small towns.

Qualifications and Certifications:

Like we have discussed above, a Medical Assistant who has been certified by an authorised association or certifying body tend to get paid the most. This poses an important question: what are the necessary qualifications and certifications to become a Medical Assistant.

The qualifications to become a Medical Assistant are available in a variety of choices. In fact, becoming a Medical Assistant is one of the jobs in the healthcare sector that allows one to enter the field without having to spend may years in education. Most Medical Assistant professionals become one after obtaining a certification in the field. Most medical assistant training is typically three months or longer. Medical assistant courses vary from a total of few weeks to two years, depending on the certificate or diploma you are earning. The duration depends on the level of education you pursue. A Certificate program might take a few weeks to complete, while a diploma takes anywhere between 6 months and one year. A degree program is usually 2 years in duration.

The duration will also vary based on the specialization. If candidates choose to specialize in areas such as ophthalmology, paediatrics, or phlebotomy, they would have to spend more time in training.

The different types of courses, along with the difference in end goals, viz. certification, diploma or associate degree makes the career path to becoming a Medical Assistant accessible to anyone with basic educational qualifications. The varied pathways and courses mean that the financial requirements to become a medical assistant is also not uniform.  The fees differ for different colleges and technical schools.  The tuition alone for a medical assistant course can range anywhere from $1,200 to $4,200. As expected, costs are often higher for those who want to obtain an associate’s degree, as this is a longer course and is more in depth. At the higher end of the scale, it is estimated that the cost of a full program can be as high as $10,000.

Medical assisting is not typically a state-licensed/certified profession. Historically Medical Assistants have been employed without formal training, and have been trained on the job, under the physician’s or employer’s direct supervision. In recent years, medical assisting has become one of the most popular healthcare careers to specialize in. Though the Certification from the American Association for Medical Assistants is not mandatory, many employers do require that their medical assistants be certified. It is possible to work as a medical assistant without certification. However medical assistants who perform specific duties, such as phlebotomy or x-rays, may require specific training and certification in these areas as per the state laws. Even though it is not mandatory, medical assistants prefer getting certified as it helps them  to set themselves apart as highly qualified professionals with a certain degree of knowledge and expertise in the profession through the voluntary national certification.

In order to become a Certified Medical Assistant, a professional must have completed a certification or diploma or a graduate program in Medical Assistance. To appear for the certification exam, the candidate must have completed either certification or diploma or a graduate program accredited by The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). After their training, they must appear for the certification exam called Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Once they pass the exam, they become Certified Medical Assistants (CMA). The CMA must be renewed every 5 years, and recertification is based on either the completion of the CMA Certification/Recertification Exam or the completion of continuing education.

The Certified Medical Assistant exam by AAMA is one of the exams available. The others are the American Medical Technologists (AMT) and the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT).  Most states and organizations accept the certifications by any of these organizations.

Some tips on exam preparation and job interviews:

The Medical Assistant exams test the knowledge and skills acquired by a Medical Assistant in three broad areas viz. General Knowledge, Administrative Knowledge and Clinical Knowledge. It might be useful to use the practice tests available online to become familiar with the test format and the different topics that are tested in the actual exam. The internet offers plenty of resources to practice these tests.  Candidates who have prepared well and practiced some mocks should be able to pass the exam with ease.

Once you become a Certified Medical Assistant, you are all set to explore the opportunities that are available aplenty. Keep an eye on the internet for job opportunities, also drop your resume in established healthcare institutions, you could also follow the websites of organizations you are interested in to get notified if they post vacancies there. The next step is to prepare well for the job interview. Plan ahead for some popular questions that could be asked, think about your strengths as a Medical Assistant and write down answers for personality-based questions like “why do you think you are the best fit for this job?” This would remove some of the anxiety you might have during the interview. Good preparation for the interview will ensure that you land in a good job.

Career path for Certified Medical Assistants:

Certified Medical Assistants have a very promising career prospect. The present need for skilled Medical Assistant professionals is quite hight and it would only increase in the future. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the employment for medical assistants will grow by as much as 29 percent through 2026, more than four times the average rate for all other occupations. There will always be a need for dedicated, knowledgeable and caring health care professionals. The increased demand would certainly improve the financial outlook for medical assistants.

Medical Assistants can also choose to specialize in a particular area. For instance, Paediatric medical assistants work with paediatricians providing care to infants, children and teens under the age of 18. They undergo specialized training to work in a paediatric clinic. Ophthalmology is another specialized area, where Medical Assistants need to undergo additional training in order to work. Though Phlebotomy, is a common area most Medical Assistants are expected to have knowledge in, choosing to specialize in this domain enhances the career prospects of Medical Assistants. MAs who specialize in phlebotomy can find work in laboratories and other areas in healthcare. Choosing to specialize in a particular domain involves additional costs and duration to the training. But it also increases the career prospects and MAs with specialized qualifications can land in some of the highest paid Medical Assistant jobs.

Medical Assistants who enhance their skills continuously will be able to advance their careers. Certified Medical Assistants who are experienced in their field must utilize their experience as an MA to advance their career to the next level. The opportunities for advancement in specialized clinical areas and other broader careers is abundant for a skilled Medical Assistant. With experience, medical assistants can specialize and move into leadership roles, filling some of the vital healthcare workforce needs. By advancing their education, CMA’s can become healthcare managers, healthcare administrators, nurses and more.

A Medical Assistant is a bridge between the patients and healthcare professionals. Medical assistants play both clinical and administrative roles. Their position is unique because of this dual responsibility. A Medical Assistant gets paid well, has plenty of opportunities to grow professionally, and gets an opportunity to interact with people and care for them. This profession is one of the most rewarding in all aspects and we hope you would decide to become one.  

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