How To Become a Medical Assistant
Are you interested in a career in the medical field and hoping to work alongside doctors, nurses, and patients to provide high-quality patient care? Medical assistants are on the front lines of many doctor’s offices, hospitals, and urgent care centers performing a wide range of clinical and administrative tasks. Demand for new medical assistants in 2021 is incredibly high across the country, and this career path offers steady pay, dependable hours, solid employee benefits and job security. Not everyone has the skillset to work in the medical field, but if you find yourself dedicated and service-oriented, becoming a certified medical assistant might be the ideal job for you.
What Is a Medical Assistant?
Medical assistants are specially-trained health care providers who work closely with patients, nurses, and doctors and perform a variety of clinical and administrative tasks associated with running a medical office. Clinical duties a medical assistant performs include:
- Taking and recording a patient’s vital signs
- Collecting a patient’s medical history
- Assisting physicians with patient exams
- Giving injections or medications as directed by a physician
- Sterilizing medical supplies
- Disposing of medical waste
In addition to clinical work, medical assistants perform many administrative tasks such as:
- Updating and maintaining patient charts
- Assisting with medical billing
- Managing medical records
- Filing insurance claims
- Scheduling patient appointments
With a range of duties, medical assistants have the opportunity to participate in many of the day-to-day operations of a medical office, hospital department, or private practice.
Medical Assistant Skills
How do you know if a career as a medical assistant is a good fit for you? Successful medical assistants must be detail-oriented, possess strong verbal and written communication skills, become well-versed in medical terminology, and have an interest in learning clinical skills such as giving injections and assisting with medical procedures. In order to complete the wide range of tasks assigned to medical assistants, you must be well-organized and able to multi-task.
Depending on the work environment, some medical assistants may focus primarily on administrative tasks such as updating records and billing forms, making patient appointments and working with insurance paperwork and approvals. For these administrative medical assistants, in addition to an eye for detail and strong communication skills, solid computer skills are a must. Whether working with patients on a clinical or administrative basis, medical assistants also need to have strong interpersonal skills in order to provide friendly and supportive customer service and patient care. If you possess these skills and are interested in performing these daily tasks, a career as a medical assistant will be a good choice.
Medical Assistant Education Requirements
In most states, there are no formal education requirements for medical assistants. However, most employers prefer to hire those who have successfully completed a medical assisting training program. Medical assistant training courses are offered as one-year certificate or diploma programs and as two-year associate’s degree programs. Medical assistant training programs are offered at:
- Community colleges
- Technical schools
- Vocational training centers
- Some 4-year colleges and universities
Prerequisites for enrolling in a medical assistant training program generally include a high school diploma or G.E.D. certificate as well as a completed application, medical exam and background check.
Salary & Job Outlook
On average, medical assistants earned a median annual wage of $35,850 in May 2020 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Individual salary levels depend on geographic location, type of employer as well as experience level and certification.
Job opportunities for medical assistants are expected to grow significantly over the next several years as an aging population will increase demand for skilled medical professionals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of medical assistants is expected to grow 19 percent from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than the average growth for all occupations. While all medical assistants will have solid job prospects nationwide, those who have received certifications and those with familiarity with electronic health records may have a leg up in the job search process.
Learn more about a medical assistant salary.
How to Become a Medical Assistant
Step 1: Enroll in a Training Program
While it is possible to work as a medical assistant with only a high school diploma or GED certificate, most employers strongly prefer candidates who have completed a training program and earned a certification. The American Association for Medical Assistants requires that candidates complete a training program approved by the Commission of Allied Health Education Programs or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools in order to be certified as CMAs with the AAMA. Medical assistant training programs include both classroom instruction and laboratory practice time to provide a well-rounded education for aspiring medical assistants. Training programs include instruction in a number of clinical and administrative practices, including human anatomy, medical terminology, first aid techniques, medical coding and insurance processing, medical record keeping and computer skills.
There are a few options for medical assistant training types: unofficial on-the-job training, traditional on campus training programs, online training programs and hybrid training programs that include online instruction in addition to in-person practice.
- On-the-Job Training: Some doctors and healthcare employers may be willing to provide training to aspiring medical assistants, which is a good way to begin paid work as a medical assistant as soon as possible. However, as noted above, it is not usually possible to acquire certification as a medical assistant without completing a formal training program. Formal training and certification are the best ways to stay competitive in the job market and earn higher salaries. Because of this, the on-the-job training option may be best as a stepping stone to earning enough money to pay for formal training in the future.
- Accredited On-Campus Training Programs: The traditional approach to medical assistant training is an on campus training program that generally takes 9-12 months to complete for a diploma program or two years for an associate’s degree. On campus programs provide students with the opportunity to interact with instructors and other medical students in a highly structured learning environment. However, on campus programs may be difficult to attend for working students without a flexible schedule and costly for students who have to commute and/or pay to park to campus.
- Online Training Programs: Online training programs are becoming increasingly popular because they offer students the flexibility of completing classes from home whenever it is convenient. Although online CMA training courses will still require in-person externship experience, the flexibility of online training is attractive to those working full- or part-time or those with family obligations. The downside of online training is that students may miss out on the community and resources of a campus program.
- Hybrid Training Programs: Hybrid training programs combine online coursework with on campus lab training. These programs provide the flexibility of completing assignments from home, while reducing their commute and offering interaction with other students and instructors.
Step 2: Become Certified
Becoming certified as a medical assistant may not be a requirement for employment but it is strongly recommended in order to land the best and highest paying medical assistant positions. The American Association of Medical Assistants offers a certification exam to those who have completed an accredited training program and who wish to become Certified Medical Assistants (CMAs). The exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions administered in four 40-minute segments. The AAMA offers a content outline of the exam as well as practice exams and other resources for studying for certification.
In addition to the CMA certification offered by the AAMA, the American Medical Certification Association offers certification exams in specializations within the medical assisting field, including a Clinical Medical Assistant Certification and a Clinical Medical Administrative Assistant Certification.
3. Create a Resume
Now that you have completed your training and gotten your certifications, it is time to create a resume that will land you your first job. Your cover letter and resume are your chance to make a professional first impression on your potential employer. Take your time to craft a resume that will make you look qualified, experienced, and desirable to your new employer.
When creating a resume and cover letter, brevity is key. Try to limit both documents to one page. Though they should be short, you also need to be sure that you are providing enough information about your qualifications. Try to use healthcare industry terminology you learned in your training programs to describe your skills, as well as keywords from the job posting you are applying for.
When writing your cover letter, make sure you do a little bit of research beforehand on your prospective employer. You should personalize your letter to fit the needs and values of the business. Though this will take more time, it will show to the employer that you really care about the job and increase your chances of getting hired.
4. Start Your Job Search
Medical assisting is a growing field but finding your first job will take a little bit of work, especially if you have limited healthcare experience. The key is to cast a wide net in your job search. Instead of applying to just general care and physician’s practices, look into different types of doctor’s offices too. Search for openings at specialty practices such as chiropractors, pediatricians, podiatrists, and more. When you are just starting out, you may have more luck finding a job at a smaller, local office. From there, you can gain experience and work up to a medical assistant position at your ideal location.
Tap into the resources of your training program. Many community colleges and vocational schools have job placement and resume review services for no additional fee. You might also want to consider joining your local AAMA chapter. This will help you to network with other professionals in your field and make connections with potential employers. You should also use the internet to your advantage during your job search. Check job listing websites like Monster and Indeed periodically to look for new openings. It is also a good idea to keep your LinkedIn profile up-to-date so you can use the website to connect with professionals and search for jobs.
When you have landed a job interview for an open position, it’s time to prepare. Do a little bit of research on the practice before you apply and craft answers for some of the most common interview questions. Every interview will be different, but most interviews will include questions about your skills, the medical practice, and personal questions.
Below are examples of questions you may be asked during a job interview:
- Where did you receive your training and certifications?
- What is your experience with medical software?
- Do you know how to do CPR?
- Have you ever been trained in HIPAA or OSHA regulations?
- What is your experience operating medical equipment?
Medical Practice Questions:
- Do you have past work experience in a healthcare setting?
- Have you ever worked directly with patients?
- What types of procedures have you assisted with in the past?
- Why do you want to work at this practice?
- Can you handle working on multiple tasks at once?
- How well do you handle stress?
- Are you a good multitasker?
- Are you comfortable making tough decisions without guidance?
- Do you take initiative in the workplace?
- How would you deal with a difficult patient?
- If you did not get along with a coworker or patient, what would you do?
These are just a few of the types of questions you may be asked during an interview for a medical assistant job. Although the actual questions may vary, these questions will help set you on the right path when preparing for your interview. It is important to consider why you want to be a medical assistant, why you want to work at that particular office, and what skills make you uniquely qualified for the job. You should also try to come up with some real life examples of your experience, as they will probably come up.
After preparing for the interview questions, you should consider what you are going to wear to the interview. Presentation matters. After all, your appearance is the first impression you will make and you will want a professional one. Try to dress professionally and stylishly, but still a little conservative. Also, be sure to make eye contact, stand up straight, and speak clearly.
Confidence is key. Have confidence in your training, skills, and passion for healthcare, and before you know it you will have landed your first job as a medical assistant.
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