How to Become a Medical Assistant

Liz Heintz

Written By: Liz Heintz

Published: 4/27/2022

Becoming a medical assistant can be the first step on your career path within the medical field and have you well-poised for success in various healthcare settings. The process is fairly straightforward and medical assistant certificate programs can be completed on-campus or online in as little as a year. While there are no legal state licensing and certification requirements, you may decide to earn your credentials by taking the exam to become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA). This may give you a competitive edge in the job market and some employers may prefer it.

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What is a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)?

CMAs work at medical facilities assisting doctors and nurses with patient care. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 57% work in physicians' offices, while others work in hospitals, outpatient care centers, and chiropractic offices. A CMA is often one of the first people patients see upon arrival at a medical office. They are usually the person who escorts them to their examination rooms, takes vital signs, and records medical histories. Their responsibilities may vary depending on the type of practice, location, and size of the office or facility but often include those listed below.

Assisting physicians with exams or clinical procedures
Changing wound dressings
Collecting and preparing specimens for laboratory tests, including blood draws
Explaining medical procedures and treatment plans to patients
Administering intramuscular, intradermal, and subcutaneous injections
Sterilizing instruments and equipment
Taking electrocardiograms
Transmitting prescription requests from doctors to pharmacies

How Long Does it Take to Become a Certified Medical Assistant?

It usually takes full-time students about a year to complete a medical assistant program at a community college or vocational school. Upon successful completion, students may be ready to take the Certified Medical Assistant accreditation exam through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Additionally, some community colleges offer two-year programs that lead to postsecondary education such as an associate degree program.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming A Medical Assistant

There are five steps to becoming a medical assistant:

1

Verify your state's scope of practice for medical assistants so you know what kind of training and skills you will need to become qualified to practice.

2

Choose a training program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) and enroll.

3

Complete your program, which may take one to two years, and a practicum through an internship, externship, or volunteering to gain hands-on training. A program advisor may be able to help you locate opportunities in your area.

4

Apply and pay the $125 certification exam fee to take your CMA exam through the AAMA.

5

Prepare your resume and your online profile on sites such as LinkedIn or Indeed and start applying and interviewing for jobs. Your program advisor or school's career center may also be able to help you with your search.

You'll need to renew your certification periodically, usually every five years. Renewal may include paying a recertification exam fee, taking the exam, and completing any continuing education units (CEUs). The AAMA offers two ways to recertify depending on your needs.

Certified Medical Assistant Careers

In addition to an interest in medicine, students aspiring to become CMAs often have similar characteristics and skills that may draw them to the profession.

  • An appreciation for routine
  • Effective communication skills
  • A service-oriented personality
  • Critical thinking skills with attention to detail
  • Self-motivation and initiative
  • Social perception and intuition
  • Stress tolerance
  • The ability to actively listen and express compassion

While there are no state licensing requirements, each state's scope of work can provide insight into what tasks they expect their medical assistants to perform and the necessary job training. According to the BLS, medical assistants generally earn a median annual salary of $35,850, with the lowest 10% earning $26,930 and the top 10% earning $50,580. Medical assistance is a high-growth occupation with a predicted 18% job outlook through 2030, almost twice the average. The New York-Newark-New Jersey metropolitan area has the highest employment level of medical assistants in the U.S. as of 2021. Rochester, Minnesota — the home of the Mayo Clinic — has the highest concentration of medical assistant jobs available.

Role Responsibilities
Administrative medical assistants These assistants often perform their role at the front desk by greeting patients, answering phones, coding and maintaining patient medical records, and scheduling appointments.
Clinical medical assistants Clinical duties may vary by state but generally include assisting doctors and nurses with the direct delivery of patient care and ensuring that care is delivered as safely as possible.
Ophthalmic or optometric assistants These healthcare professionals may prepare patients for examination and later show them how to insert and remove contacts or order eyeglasses. Some may even assist ophthalmologists during surgery.
Podiatric medical assistants Podiatrists rely on their medical assistants to treat foot conditions. Treatment may include making castings of feet, taking and developing X-rays, and assisting with surgery.

How to Advance Your Medical Assisting Career

There are several ways you may be able to work toward career advancement within the health field and increase your job opportunities:

You may be interested in seeking additional training or certifications. Find out if there are other classes you can take to become skilled in a specific area to provide additional value to patients and staff. Training may also prepare you for certification in electronic health records, electrocardiogram (EKG) technology, or phlebotomy through American Medical Technologists (AMT) or the National Healthcare Association (NHA).
Earning your associate degree in nursing can prepare you to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN), which may also be called a licensed vocational nurse (LVN). This path and coursework may be of interest if you consider that other nursing programs require a four-year degree.
If you decide you want to pursue a four-year degree, a bachelor's can help you specialize. For example, registered nursing requires a bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN). Becoming a certified molecular diagnostics technologist or certified medical laboratory assistant, requires a baccalaureate and credentialing from the National Healthcareer Association. You may also choose to pursue a bachelor's degree in a field such as health education and medical assisting can also help you if you're interested in transitioning to non-clinical work within the industry.

FAQs About Becoming a Medical Assistant

What Is the Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Nurse?

Nurses perform more complex tasks than medical assistants despite some overlap in their roles. Nurses are able to administer medications intravenously and perform catheterizations. They require additional training and education to learn and practice these skills in hospitals and long-term care facilities.

What Are the Qualifications for Becoming a Medical Assistant?

You must complete an accredited program at a vocational school or community college to become a medical assistant. While there are no licensing or certification requirements for medical assistants, you may choose certification to increase your marketability, and an employer may require it.

Who Typically Hires Medical Assistants?

Medical assistants work primarily in outpatient care settings. Work environments include doctor's offices, clinics, specialty care facilities, and ambulatory service facilities.

What Are Some Medical Assistant Tasks?

Medical assistant tasks include:

  • Measuring vital signs
  • Recording health histories
  • Assisting doctors during procedures
  • Drawing blood
  • Administering immunizations and allergy shots

Medical assistants may also provide front office support, schedule appointments, answer phones, and check patients in for their visits.

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