What Does a Medical Assistant Do?
Medical assistants are unlicensed caregivers who work primarily in doctors’ offices and clinics, although they may also work in hospitals in some states. Each state determines what a medical assistant is allowed to do, so their tasks may vary from one state to another. In all states, however, a medical assistant must work under the supervision of a doctor or licensed nurse such as an RN or LPN/LVN.
Medical assistants can be trained on the job. However, many colleges, universities and technical-vocational schools offer medical assistant programs. These often vary in length and the curriculum may vary as well. This is important, as a medical assistant’s competence can be directly related to his or her training. Training programs can be post-secondary certificate programs or may offer an associate degree. A typical post-secondary program lasts about six months to a year, as medical assistants can be trained in administrative work, clinical work or both. Associate degree programs last two years and include both kinds of training.
Certification in medical assisting is available from no less than four different organizations. The titles vary according to the organization. These are:
1. American Association of Medical Assistants – Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)
2. American Medical Technologists – Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)
3. National Center for Competency Testing – National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)
4. National Healthcareer Association – Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) and Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)
In each case, the medical assistant must pass an examination to become certified. Some of these organizations require that the medical assistant be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma or be a graduate of an accredited program. Work experience may also be required. Certification is required in some states in order to practice. Depending on the state, certification may also affect what a medical assistant is allowed to do.
General Administrative Medical Assistants
Administrative medical assistants typically perform clerical duties. They function as receptionists, answer the telephone and schedule patients for appointments. The administrative medical assistant may be responsible for all medical records functions within an organization. Administrative medical assistants handle coding and billing in some offices. They may also be the insurance experts, who help patients complete forms, work on payment denials and interact with insurance, Medicare or Medicaid representatives. An administrative medical assistant may also function as a physician’s secretary – writing letters or reports, managing his or her overall schedule or performing similar tasks. Administrative assistants are often official or de facto office managers and may have supervisory responsibilities, order supplies or perform payroll tasks.
Clinical Medical Assistants
Clinical medical assistants provide direct care and clinical support to the doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant. They collect information about the patient and document the data in the paper chart or electronic medical record. A clinical medical assistant might obtain a patient’s vital signs, weight or height, review the patient’s medical and surgical history and update the medication list. They help the physician with examinations and procedures, give injections and other medications, obtain urine and other samples for testing and perform blood draws. They may remove stitches or staples, change dressings and perform patient education. This group is usually responsible for tasks such as sterilizing instruments, ordering clinical supplies and managing sample or stock medications.
Specialty Medical Assistants
Specialized medical assistants are usually clinical medical assistants with specialized training that they receive on the job. This group includes:
Ophthalmic and optometric medical assistants help eye doctors provide eye care,. They may perform specialized vision testing, show patients how to insert, remove and care for contact lenses, and fit patients with eyeglasses. In some state, ophthalmic medical assistants may help the physician in the operating room. Specialty certification is available.
Podiatric medical assistants work with podiatrists (doctors who specialize in care of the foot and ankle). They might take X-rays, help the doctor in surgery, trim nails and apply or remove casts and splints. Specialty certification is available.
Chiropractic medical assistants work in chiropractic offices. They may assist the chiropractor with treatments, take health histories, provide patient education or perform front office duties. Specialty certification is not available.
Cardiac medical assistants who work in cardiologists’ (heart doctors’) offices may specialize in heart disease diagnostic and monitoring procedures. While any medical assistant might perform an electrocardiogram (EKG), cardiac medical assistants may also be trained to perform echocardiograms (which show heart structures, function and blood flow in real time). They may also apply and recover data from Holter monitors, which are outpatient heart monitoring applications a patient wears for a full day or longer. Stress testing is another area in which a cardiac medical assistant may be trained. Specialty certification is not available.
OB/GYN medical assistants work with obstetricians and gynecologists. In addition to assisting with pelvic exams and Pap smears, which is a task for any medical assistant, those in the OB/GYN field might help with the care of pregnant women. They may assist with in-office gynecology surgeries, provide care to newborns, perform pregnancy tests, help new mothers with breastfeeding and provide patient education about specific conditions like pregnancy or menopause. Specialty certification is not available.
Medical Assistants in Hospitals
Whether a medical assistant can work in a hospital depends on the state regulations governing the occupation. A medical assistant in a hospital setting might hold a position in medical records or billing or work as a unit clerk. Others may work in a medical laboratory – perhaps as a phlebotomist who draws blood – or provide direct patient care on a clinical unit. Those who perform direct patient care tasks usually perform tasks similar to those of a nurse aide – bathing patients, assisting with meals or toileting, transporting patients or working with specialized professionals like physical or occupational therapists. In some states, medical assistants can even administer medications in a hospital setting.
Medical Assistant Task List
While any organization will develop its own list of tasks and responsibilities, common medical assistant jobs are included on the list below:
- Act as a physician’s secretary
- Administer oral and injectable medications
- Assist patients with insurance forms and claims
- Assist physicians and other providers with exams and procedures
- Call or fax prescriptions to pharmacies
- Change dressings
- Clean and maintain instruments and medical equipment
- Collect data about previous health, medical and surgical history from patients
- Collect specimens for lab tests
- Document in paper or electronic medical records
- Enter data from monitoring and tracking systems such and vaccine and medication refrigerators, sterilization devices and other quality or safety data
- Handle and route office mail
- Manage medical records
- Manage specialty referrals
- Measure patent vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, pulse and temperature), height and weight
- Order medical and office supplies and medications
- Perform billing tasks
- Perform in-office lab tests
- Perform specialized testing such as EKGs, vision screening and hearing tests
- Provide patient education as directed by the doctor or other provider
- Remove staples and stitches
- Schedule patient appointments
- Schedule surgeries and diagnostic procedures such as CT scans and MRIs
- Stock exam rooms
- Supervise other medical assistants
Scope of Practice
It is very important that a medical assistant recognize there are some things he or she cannot do. Each state defines the scope of practice for a medical assistant and the American Association of Medical Assistants also acts as an expert reference on scope of practice. For example, most states prevent medical assistants from performing invasive procedures such as starting an intravenous line or inserting a Foley catheter, and do not allow them to administer blood or intravenous medications. Medical assistants cannot practice independently in any state, but must be supervised by a physician or other licensed medical person such as an RN, LPN/LVN, nurse practitioner or physician assistant. A medical assistant should always be familiar with the laws governing practice in his or her state of residence and should check with the regulatory board if questions arise. In some states, such as California, medical assistants are governed by the state medical board, while in others, the state board of nursing is the governing agency.
Medical assisting is a high demand occupation, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which notes that job growth from 2014 to 2024 is projected to be about 23 percent, almost three times the national average projected for all occupations. If you’re interested in a career as a medical assistant, you’re likely to have the best opportunities if you graduate from an accredited program and obtain certification. Employers typically prefer to hire graduates of accredited programs because they are more likely to be assured of standardized training and many employers prefer or require certification.
The medical assistant is a key support person in physicians’ offices and clinics. Without their support, physicians and other professional practitioners would be much less efficient and find it more difficult to care for people of all ages. In fact, most physicians would be lost without their medical assistants.