What Is a Medical Assistant?
A medical assistant is an allied health professional who supports physicians, nurses and other health professionals, mainly in medical offices and in clinics. It's the medical assistant's job to perform routine administrative and clinical tasks to keep the offices they're working in running smoothly.
Individuals considering a career as a medical assistant should have excellent communication skills and possess the ability to translate medical lingo into layman terms for patients and their families. Additionally, they should exhibit compassion for all of their patients while being both nonjudgmental and good listeners. Prospective medical assistants should also know how to follow directions, be self-controlled, know how to problem solve, and be adaptable and organized.
What Are the Education Requirements for a Medical Assistant?
Generally, medical assisting is not a state-licensed or certified profession. This means that medical assistants do not typically need specific education or credentials to practice in the field. However, at the very least they should have obtained their high school diploma. Exceptions include medical assistants who perform special duties like x-rays or phlebotomy. State laws require specific training and certification in these areas.
Medical assistants can set themselves apart as highly qualified professionals with a certain degree of knowledge and expertise in the profession through a voluntary national certification process. Employers often seek medical assistants with national certification. For example, the AAMA has reported that an increasing number of managed care organizations are now placing specific mandates on employers to hire certified medical assistants.
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Any Certification or Credentials Needed?
The most widely recognized national certification for medical assistants is the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
To become a Certified Medical Assistant, individuals must be able to meet a number of requirements:
- Candidates are required to have graduated from a medical assisting program (may be a one-year certificate or diploma program or a two-year associate degree program) that is accredited by either:
- Candidates must take and pass the CMA Certification Examination
What Is the Difference Between Registration and Certification for Medical Assistants?
Medical Assistants (MAs) are not required to earn certification or register once they complete an MA program. However, some employers preferentially hire or even require certification. So, which should a new MA choose?
The bottom line is that both the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) and Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) are essentially the same things. The difference is in the certifying organization and exam. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) offers a certification exam that will allow medical assistants to earn the credential "CMA" (Certified Medical Assistant).
The American Medical Technologists (AMT) also offers a certification exam for MAs to earn the credential "RMA" (Registered Medical Assistant). The exam covers much of what is on the AAMA certification exam to include both clerical and clinical concepts. Membership is also available, which allows MAs to attend annual conventions and seminars, have access to publications as well as online continuing education. Additionally, members can have access to career opportunities around the country.
Whether earning certification as a CMA or RMA, both demonstrate that the medical assistant has met educational and professional standards in the field and is considered an "expert". Becoming certified also gives MAs an advantage when seeking a new career, or even a leadership position.
If you're already a medical assistant consider an MA to RN program.
Medical Assistants work in a variety of healthcare settings including but not limited to the following:
- Outpatient care centers
- Colleges and universities
- Medical research centers
- Diagnostic laboratories
- Insurance carriers
- Nursing care facilities
What Does a Medical Assistant Do?
The duties of medical assistants vary from office to office, state to state, and depend on the location and size of the practice and the practitioner's specialty.
Medical assistants perform many different tasks in their work setting. While the bulk of the work involves clinical, patient care tasks, they also perform administrative tasks. In fact, medical assistant certification programs include both clinical and administrative modules as part of the curriculum.
The following are clinical tasks medical assistants may perform, depending on the setting:
- Taking vital signs
- Administering medications/injections
- Simple wound care
- Applying orthopedic appliances, such as wrist/knee braces or ace wraps
- Administering vision or hearing tests
- Performing ear lavage
- Removing sutures
- Collecting medical histories
- Performing electrocardiograms
- Phlebotomy, if certified
- Assisting providers with procedures
In addition to the clinical tasks above, medical assistants may also perform administrative tasks such as:
- Greeting patients
- Ordering supplies
- Answering telephones
- Scheduling appointments
- Arranging future care for patients (i.e., lab/radiology appointments, specialty appointments, etc.)
- Managing medical records
- Corresponding with insurance companies
- Managing and assisting with provider messages/virtual work
Medical assistants have a broad knowledge base that allows them to assist providers quickly and efficiently. They are critical to the success of healthcare practices.
Medical assistants are extremely versatile in their everyday work. One of the tasks they are responsible for is administering medications.
The first consideration one should keep in mind is that each state has regulations as to what a medical assistant can and cannot administer, as well as who is responsible for them as they are unlicensed workers. Medical assistants are usually allowed to administer oral, intramuscular, or subcutaneous injections as well as inhaled medications such as nebulizer therapy. Proper training and even certification may also be required.
Exactly what an MA is allowed to administer is also determined by the state. For example, in California, medical assistants may legally administer any intramuscular medications, including narcotics, with the exception of an anesthetic or collagen. However, they are not allowed to inject any medication into an IV. They must verify the medication with licensed staff before administration. For those interested in the field of medical assisting, it’s highly recommended to visit their state’s medical board website to review the MA scope of practice as well as the training requirements for medication administration.
What Are the Roles & Duties of a Medical Assistant?
- Taking medical histories
- Explaining treatment procedures to patients
- Preparing patients for examination
- Assisting the physician during exams
- Collecting and preparing laboratory specimens
- Performing basic laboratory tests
- Instructing patients about medication and special diets
- Preparing and administering medications as directed by a physician
- Transmitting prescription refills as directed
- Drawing blood
- Taking electrocardiograms
- Removing sutures and changing dressings
- Using computer applications
- Answering telephones
- Greeting patients
- Updating and filing patient medical records
- Coding and filling out insurance forms
- Scheduling appointments
- Arranging for hospital admissions and laboratory services
- Handling correspondence, billing, and bookkeeping
Who Do Medical Assistants Report To?
Supervision is considered to be where the supervising licensed clinician is readily available to the unlicensed staff in the event of any untoward occurrence. As the MA is unlicensed, the technical term of supervision relates to clinicians with advanced degrees and clinical competency as a ‘supervising clinician'. The term "supervision" as described above is not in the same context as oversight or delegation of tasks.
Each state's Medical Board is responsible for classifying and governing the role of the medical assistant. The Medical Practice Act, a provision of the Medical Board, defines MA training and role expectation. For example, the California Medical Board lists two ways in which a Medical Assistant can gain training:
1. Directly from a physician/podiatrist or through other qualified medical personnel under the direction of the physician/podiatrist, or
2. Through a formal education program that meets the defined criteria.
Some states do not recognize a formal Scope of Practice for unlicensed medical personnel. The supervising physician or podiatrist is responsible to have written job duties and expectations available for the MA as more of a "scope of employment" rather than practice. The American Association of Medical Assistants offers state-by-state descriptions of practice issues and questions. For example, an MA in Idaho may be delegated the task of intramuscular injections once the MA has been trained and is proven competent to perform the task as long as the supervising clinician has verified the patient-specific order, dose, and route prior to the MA administering the medication.
Each state's Board of Nursing, through the Nurse Practice Act, allows for nurses to delegate tasks and to oversee unlicensed assistive staff such as a medical assistant. Nurses are also authorized to assess the competency of staff to ensure the tasks are delegated and performed in a safe manner for the patient. Written permission by the supervising physician, often in the form of a policy, can grant a registered nurse the ability to delegate technical support services which are routine and simple medical tasks/procedures.
Medical assisting is one of the national careers growing much faster than average for all occupations, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, attributing job growth to the following:
- Advances in technology
- Growing number of elderly Americans (i.e. "baby boomers") who will require medical treatment
- Predicted surge in the number of outpatient care clinics and doctors' offices
Because medical assistants can work in a variety of health centers, salary is likely to differ from industry to industry. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for medical assistants in 2018 was $33,610. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,790, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $47,250.
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From 2016 to 2026, medical assisting employment is projected to grow 29 percent, which is much higher than the national average. As the baby boomer population ages, there will be an increased demand for preventive medical care. As a result, doctors will expand their practices to hire more medical assistants to handle administrative and clinical duties, which will allow care centers to see more patients.