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How To Become A Medical Assistant in 2021

How To Become A Medical Assistant in 2021

A medical assisting career is as fulfilling as it is lucrative. However, make no mistake about it. Helping others in their time of need should be an integral part of who you are. If you’re looking for a relatively quick way to get into the healthcare industry, becoming a certified medical assistant is undoubtedly the best way to do it.

Your day-to-day work at a medical facility would involve administering first aid and patient medication, recording vital signs, performing diagnostic procedures, and a wide range of routine tasks that come with direct patient care. You’ll work closely with doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals to ensure your patients get the best care possible.

With that brief overview of what to expect, here’s everything you need to know about how to become a medical assistant.

Benefits of Becoming a Medical Assistant

First things first. You probably want to know what the perks of becoming a registered medical assistant are. While a career in the medical field may not be for everyone, there are some great benefits for individuals interested in going down this path. If you’re thinking of enrolling in a medical assisting program, here are some of the top benefits that come with the job.

1. It Is a Quick Way to Launch Your Career in the Medical World

Getting a college education is important. However, if you’re like most people, you’re probably itching to get your career off the ground as soon as possible. Healthcare professionals who pursued bachelor’s degree programs will tell you that they spent a good chunk of their youth in medical training school.

You can complete a basic medical assisting program in as little as 12 months. A competency-based medical assistant training program, on the other hand, can be completed in nine months. If your dream is to start working at a healthcare facility in a relatively short time, training as a medical assistant would be your best bet.

2. You Start Gaining Experience Before Graduating

Different college programs have different requirements for the students enrolled in their courses. For most higher education institutions, completing an internship or externship is a compulsory requirement before you’re allowed to graduate.

Medical assisting programs with these requirements allow you to gain clinical experience that you can add to your resume. This would enhance your job prospects since you would be able to demonstrate to potential employers that you already have hands-on experience. This is often not the case with other professional programs.

3. You Can Work In a Variety of Healthcare Jobs

Unlike many other healthcare professions that are limited to hospitals, a medical assistant job allows you to work in various stations. You can work in different medical departments, including chiropractic, oncology, general practice, cardiology, neurology, radiology, intensive/non-intensive care units, etc.

You can also work in various healthcare centers, including ambulatory surgical centers, dialysis centers, diabetes education centers, mental health centers, addiction treatment centers, rehabilitation centers, among others. We would go as far as to say that a medical assistant career offers more job opportunities than that of a CNA and LPN.

While CNAs and LPNs offer direct patient care all the time, MAs are flexible enough to perform both administrative and patient-related tasks. The potential job opportunities for a professional medical assistant are virtually limitless.

4. You Can Work In Any State

One of the great things about pursuing a medical assisting career is that you can be certified to work in any state across the country. While you can get a license that permits you to work in the specific state you reside in, there are five certification exams available recognized nationally by the health care industry. The one you sit for depends on the specific medical assistant program you take and its respective accreditation status.

5. Positive Job Outlook

When choosing a career, the one thing you should always ask yourself is whether your chosen profession will still be relevant in 10, 20, and 30 years. There’s no point in spending a ton of resources and time specializing in a field that will be rendered obsolete in a decade or so. Thankfully, becoming a certified medical assistant pretty much guarantees job security for the rest of your life. There will never come a time where the medical assistant skill is no longer required.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for MAs is projected to grow by 19 percent over the next 10 years. This is considered faster than average compared to other occupations. This indicates that the job prospects for medical assistants are good. However, individuals who have professional certification and those with a qualification in the management of electronic health records have better prospects overall.

As far as pay goes, the median annual wage for MAs is approximately $36,000, with the highest 10 percent in the field earning well over $50,000. That’s a pretty decent salary for a profession that doesn’t require you to spend a ton of years in school.

Skills and Abilities of Successful Medical Assistants

Going through a medical assisting program is only one piece of the puzzle. Being a good medical assistant is an entirely different ballgame. The real question you need to be asking is – What does it take to become a successful medical assistant? 

Here are some of the top job skills and personal qualities a good clinical medical assistant needs to have.

1. Office Skills

If you intend to work in a medical office, you’ll need to possess basic office skills. Whether you’’ be working as a physician assistant, administrative medical assistant, clinical medical assistant, or certified medical assistant, you’ll need to have a set of skills similar to those of an administrative assistant working in any field.

These include basic bookkeeping and billing skills, knowledge of electronic health record systems and document processing software like Word and Excel, customer service skills, strong oral and verbal communication skills, and basic telephone courtesy skills. While most of these are not taught in your run-of-the-mill medical assistant program, it doesn’t mean you can’t enroll in short courses that do.

2. Medical Administrative Skills

The medical administrative duties of an MA include scheduling patient appointments, recording patients’ medical histories, updating patient records after medical examinations and test results, working closely with laboratory services, and organizing for hospital admissions if the need arises.

Your work will also involve monitoring medical inventory and ordering more supplies when inventory starts running low. You may also have to process insurance forms, take care of billing, resolve potential billing issues with insurance companies, reconcile co-pays, as well advocate for patients with their respective insurance providers as far as coverage-related issues go.

3. Medical Skills

While a physician assistant may be involved in many clinical duties, they are in no way doctors or nursing practitioners. Nonetheless, they are still required to provide basic medical care under the supervision of doctors and/or nurses.

It, therefore, means that you’ll need to have certain medical skills to do this. These include, but are not limited to, drawing and securing blood and urine samples from patients, applying dressings, giving injections, administering medications, removing sutures, performing EKGs, as well as relaying questions to and conveying information from doctors and patients.

The preparation of treatment rooms for patient examinations, accurate assessment of vital signs, and knowledge of CPR and other life support skills are also considered part of medical assisting.

4. Patient Interaction Skills

This is another important medical assistant skill to have. A career in the field is patient-oriented. You will often be working directly with them. As a result, you’ll need to possess what is loosely referred to as “good bedside manner.”

This involves having strong customer service skills and the ability to break down complex medical information, instructions, and related medical terminology in a clear, precise, non-technical, and easy-to-understand way for your patients. You need to be able to interview, receive, and in some instances, even triage patients. You also need to maintain patient confidentiality when you’re both on and off the clock.

There will be times in your line of work when you’ll encounter difficult or distressed patients. You need to exercise patience while remaining calm and pleasant even in the heat of such situations. It helps to be fluent in a second or third language to be able to communicate with individuals who can’t express themselves properly in English. It also gives you a competitive edge when employment opportunities arise.

5. Personal Qualities

There’s no medical assistant program in the country, or the world for that matter, that can teach you the personal qualities to have as a healthcare professional. You cannot learn how to be empathetic, detail-oriented, and adaptable. No one can teach you how to be well-organized, have good interpersonal skills, or collaborate effectively with the team your part of. Nobody will show you how to be an active listener, multitask, or have excellent communication skills.

You need to have most (if not all) of these personal attributes if you want to be a successful medical assistant. If you find that you don’t check all the boxes, now is as good a time as any to work on yourself and acquire some of those qualities.

Education and Certification Requirements for Medical Assistants

While it is possible for an individual with only a high school diploma or GED to become an MA, the reality is, most employers require their employees to have completed an accredited medical assistant program or possess accredited medical assistant certification.

With that in mind, you’ll need to choose the right training and certification program, figure out how you’re going to pay for it, and get the right kind of training required for the specific medical assisting field you intend to work in. Here’s an overview of the education and certification requirements for medical assistants.

1. High School Diploma or GED

This is arguably the most important step in the path toward becoming a certified clinical medical assistant. You’ll need to complete high school or attain a GED. Students at this stage need to focus on math and science courses to prepare them for a career in the field. These include algebra, statistics, physics, chemistry, biology, and associated electives.

It would also be a good idea for students to volunteer at their local physician’s office or clinic to gain hands-on experience. This enhances their chances of getting accepted into postsecondary school programs. Volunteering is also a great way to help the individual get a feel for what it would be like to work in a health care environment.

2. Postsecondary Award

Although there are currently no national educational requirements for medical assisting, the American Association for Medical Assistants (AAMA) stipulates that before an individual can seek medical assistant certification, they will need to go through an approved postsecondary program first.

These programs would have to be accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). These accreditation bodies provide a list of approved MA programs, each of which offers instruction in a wide range of administrative and clinical areas, including:

  • Administering medicine
  • Coding & insurance processing
  • Computer competency
  • First aid
  • Human anatomy
  • Lab techniques
  • Medical law & ethics
  • Medical terminology
  • Pharmacology
  • Record-keeping & accounting

The students who enroll in these programs are usually required to complete a supervised internship and practicum in a healthcare facility.

AAMA also offers an alternative education pathway toward the CMA exam. This time-limited certification option requires applicants to:

  • Complete a 2-semester (560 hours) postsecondary medical assisting program that the Council has accredited for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the US Department of Education;
  • Complete at least 1,000 hours of medical assisting work or 160 hours of externship/practicum experience after attaining a postsecondary award;
  • Have an associate’s degree, certificate, or diploma.

It’s important to keep in mind that to qualify for the CMA certification using this route, the curriculum in the postsecondary program completed needs to include courses in:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Applied mathematics
  • Infection control
  • Pharmacology
  • Subcutaneous, intradermal, intramuscular injection administration
  • Theory and techniques of phlebotomy

If you meet the requirements we’ve outlined above, you’re required to pay the applicable exam fees before you’re allowed to take the medical assistant certification exam.

3. Certification Exam

Once you take the required medical assistant classes in an accredited program, you then have to pass the CMA exam administered by AAMA or its equivalent. To do this, you must first complete and submit an application form and pay the required fees.

ABHES- and CAAHEP-accredited programs usually send candidates’ transcripts to the examining body for the latter to verify that the student in question qualifies for the certification exam. Before any examination session, AAMA will provide an outline of the general scope of the test content. This may include the following topics:

  • Data collection
  • Death & dying stages
  • Human behavior
  • Human growth & development
  • Medical law & regulations
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Professionalism & interpersonal skills
  • Therapeutic & adaptive responses to diverse populations

The exam format consists of 200 multiple-choice questions. Candidates will receive an official copy of their test results after roughly eight weeks. If you fail the test on your first attempt, you’ll have two more chances to pass. It is worth noting that 60 percent of students usually pass the exam on their first attempt. Once you do, you can expect to receive the official CMA certificate 10 weeks after getting your test results.

4. Continuing Education

Obtaining a CMA certificate is one thing. Maintaining the certification is an entirely different affair. AAMA certificates are valid for a maximum of 60 months. Once your certificate expires, you’ll need to get 60 recertification points to renew it by completing the continuing education units in the following test areas:

  • Administrative – 10 points
  • Clinical – 10 points
  • General – 10 points
  • Three content areas in any combination – 30 points

Once you do, you’ll be re-issued with a new CMA certificate that’s valid for another 60 months.

Other Medical Assistant Certifications

The education requirements we’ve explored so far focus on the AAMA credential. However, other certifying organizations exist, each of which has its own set of credentialing requirements. Here’s an overview of three of the ones that the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) recognizes.

1. Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) From the AMT

To take the American Medical Technologists (AMT) exam, candidates need to meet any of the following requirements. They should:

  • Complete 720 hours of training and 160 hours of internship in an accredited medical assistant school;
  • Complete a military-based medical services training program;
  • Have five years of medical assisting experience within the past seven years;
  • Have five years of experience working as a medical assistant instructor.

RMA certification is valid for three years, at which point the candidate is required to complete 30 continuing education units for recertification.

2. National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) From the NCCT

To take the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) exam, candidates need to meet any of the following criteria. They should:

  • Either be a current student or graduate of an NCCT-accredited program within the past five years;
  • Have the military equivalent of a medical assisting training qualification;
  • Have a minimum of two years of experience in a medical assistant role.

The NCMA credential is renewable annually. For recertification, the candidate must complete 14 clock hours (CH) of continuing education.

3. Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) / Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) From the NHA

To take the National HealthCareer Association (NHA) exam, candidates need to meet any of the following requirements. They should:

  • Complete a relevant postsecondary training program;
  • Have a minimum of one years’ worth of relevant work experience.

The certification exam consists of 30 “pretest” items and 150 scored questions. The credential expires after two years, at which point candidates are required to complete 10 continuing education units for recertification.

Top Medical Assistant Programs and Schools

Choosing the best medical assisting program will play a critical role in your career progression. It’s a process you shouldn’t take lightly. The first step involves choosing what type of medical assistant program you should enroll in, i.e., a certificate, diploma, or associate degree program. Here’s a brief look into each of them to help you decide which one is right for you.

1. Certificate / Diploma MA Program

If you’re already working in the healthcare industry and are looking to expand your existing skillset, or you simply aren’t prepared to devote two entire years of your life to school, getting a certificate or diploma in medical assisting would be your best bet. The great thing about them is that the coursework involved does not contain any general education courses. This isn’t the case for the associate degree programs. The certificate and diploma courses focus solely on the medical assistant roles and responsibilities.

These programs are typically offered at a career, community, or technical college and take between nine and 12 months to complete. The coursework revolves around anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, clinical procedures, office administration, and medical law. A certificate or diploma from an accredited program qualifies you to take the CMA exam.

Best Online Medical Assistant Certificate/Diploma Programs

Here are the top three options to consider if you’re looking for an affordable, high-quality online MA certificate/diploma program from an accredited college.

Rank College Program Website
1 Herzing University Diploma in Medical Assisting Overview
2 The College of Health Care Professions Certificate in Medical Assisting Overview
3 Purdue University Global Certificate in Medical Assisting Overview

2. Associate Degree MA Program

If you’re willing to put in the time required to obtain a higher healthcare qualification, an associate’s degree in MA might be the right path for you. You’ll learn everything there is to know about what a medical assistant role entails. While the coursework involves all the units taught at certificate and diploma levels, medical assistant degree programs also have a general education module, which is essential to improving your overall marketability to potential employers.

A degree in MA takes anywhere between 18 and 24 months to complete and is typically offered at a community or four-year college. The coursework includes quantitative reasoning, written communication, medical computer applications, blood-borne pathogens and phlebotomy, human biology, and lots more.

Depending on the program you pick, the degree requirements may involve completing an externship, regardless of whether or not you’re studying through an online program. If you attend an accredited school, it automatically qualifies you to take the CMA exam, bringing you one step closer to your medical assistant career goals.

Best Online Medical Assistant Degree Programs

Here are the top three options to consider if you’re looking for an affordable, high-quality online MA associate’s degree program from an accredited college.

Rank College Program Website
1 Keiser University AS in Medical Assisting Overview
2 Penn Foster College AS in Medical Assisting Overview
3 Herzing University AS in Medical Assisting Overview

Why Is Accreditation Important

Accredited medical assistant programs mean they have received the stamp of approval from a widely recognized certifying authority. This status lets the public know that the institution in question offers the quality of education they claim. The two accrediting bodies for medical assistant programs are the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Accreditation is important for several reasons:

  • It allows qualifying students who complete their respective MA training programs to take the certification exams offered by AAMA since the body only allows individuals who’ve graduated from accredited schools to take the CMA exam.
  • MA students who require financial aid can only qualify for federal grants and loans if they attend accredited schools.
  • Employers prefer to hire individuals who’ve graduated from accredited programs. As a result, these candidates have an edge over their non-accredited graduate counterparts.
  • It is easier for graduates of MA-accredited programs to transfer to different schools if they wanted to.

How Are Medical Assistant Schools Ranked

When choosing an MA program to enroll in, there are specific factors you need to take into consideration in addition to accreditation. Here’s what you need to think about.

Completion Time

Depending on what your long-term career goals are, you may opt for a certificate program that’s designed to get you into the workforce quickly. The other option would be to take an associate’s degree course that would take 24 months to complete. Some MA schools offer accelerated courses that allow students to complete their degree in 18 months. Certificate programs, on the other hand, usually take 12 months on average.

Learning Format

Most associate degree programs at community colleges are set up to allow students to learn online, attend classes on campus, or enjoy a hybrid of the two depending on what is convenient for them. Regardless of the learning format you pick, choose a program that has a strong hands-on component to it. It should have strong ties to local employers to give you real-world experience in the medical field.

Thinking of pursuing a nursing degree? Check out our blog to find out why it’s a great career option.

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RNtoBSNProgram.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.