Medical Assistant vs. Patient Care Technician: What You Need to Know

It’s no surprise that some people call Medical Assistants (MAs) by the usually-not-complimentary name “Jack-of-all-trades.” They do this, supposedly, because MAs have both clinical and administrative skills. While that may true, the real reason MAs can accurately be addressed as such is the fact that they right now have a role in healthcare that might compare to a stem cell in the human body. Just as stem cells can take on any role and do whatever the human body (or, to be more exact, DNA) wants them to do, in theory, MAs can also be asked to do pretty much anything.

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In some ways, this may be viewed as a “blessing” but it can also be a cumbersome responsibility. Stem cells are expected to assume different roles and they are biologically suited for their unique (for no other cell in the human body has such a blank check on role playing) part in the complicated physiological tapestry that is the human body. MAs, however, have more or less been thrown into this role, without the proper preparation or needed tools, one might say.

Other jobs in healthcare are more clearly defined and no one would dare call any of them “Jack-of-all-trades.” In fact, in medicine the move has been toward specialization, accreditation, certification and licensing — all these things help to introduce and keep in place workplace boundaries, clearly-stated responsibilities, and well-demarcated power/authority paradigms.

It is the fact that this cloud of role uncertainty, powerlessness and misuse of the position of medical assistant which should compel every MA in the field right now to at least consider moving into another career — or at least be prepared to do so. Well, one of the positions that an MA can realistically shoot for is that of Patient Care Technician (PCT). Here’s how these two positions stack up.

Actually these two positions are very much alike in terms of scope, job-site power/influence, skills required, educational demands, training, and job responsibilities. Both PCTs and MAs work under the direction of an RN or LPN, who, in turn, work under the direction of Nurse Practitioners (NPs), Physician’s Assistants (Pas) or doctors. One area, though, where there are differences include administrative skills, at which, in general MAs are supposed to excel, especially for MAs that graduated from an Administrative Medical Assistant program.

When it comes to the clinical aspects of the job, though, these two positions seem to be on equal footing. Both positions will require performing the following tasks:

  • Getting vitals from patients
  • Asking patients about symptoms before seeing the nurse or doctor
  • Retrieving and updating medical histories
  • Double checking on medication refills
  • Answering basic questions
  • Taking blood, urine and other types of bodily fluid samples
  • Assisting patients with insurance forms
  • Explaining diagnoses and treatment plans to patients
  • Assisting patients to use the bathroom
  • Helping patients to move in & out of their beds, sometimes in order for them to get ready for a test (e.g., an X-ray)
  • Helping to serve meals
  • Change beds
  • Provide emotional support to patients

Actually, the roles that these two people play in hospitals can differ greatly, depending on the facility, policies established and the expectations of both administration and the nurses and doctors in charge of medical decisions and activities.

Although schools have been amending both MA and PCT educational programs, neither one requires as much education as, say, RNs. In fact, critics posit that both Mas and PCTs are for people who wanted a fast-track, low-cost entry into healthcare; it has also been suggested that some of the people who become MAs and PCTs have low IQs — in other words, they choose these positions because they don’t have the intelligence to pursue more difficult programs, such as nursing or, God forbid, medical school.

Whether these criticisms are true or not, the reality is that healthcare settings are no places for anyone but the smartest people among us. After all, these low-level health professionals are dealing with peoples’ lives. Yes, doctors and nurses are making the heavy-duty decisions and taking care of the most complicated medical procedures but, make no mistake, both MAs and PCTs make decisions every day that can lead to serious medical repercussions — including saving or, when things go wrong, losing lives.

How much education you will need depends on the school that you decide to attend — actually, this is something worth considering when deciding which school to attend. If you go with a technical or trade school, you will most probably graduate with a diploma or certificate. If you apply to a community college or a technical school that offers college degrees, you can obtain an associate of science (A.S.) in the field of your choice. Keep in mind, though, that if you get a degree, at least half of your credits will be in non-science and non-medical-assisting subjects.

Whether you get a diploma/certificate or a college degree, you will have to devote about a year of your life in order to get the education and training you need. In general, college courses are transferable (as long as the school you attended is accredited) but probably not so for trade/technical schools. This is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Some Internet educational information sites say that you can become a PCT after completing a “training program” or “acquiring equivalent work experience,” but the move in healthcare is to streamline how anyone qualifies to become a healthcare professional. Ideally, you are expected to attend a technical school, college or technical school and healthcare facilities prefer to not have to train anyone from the bottom up.

That may have happened with frequency in the past, especially in regards to CNAs — many of whom got all their training from hospitals while on the job. Well, these days, on-the-job training is a huge liability problem that most hospitals prefer avoiding. Your best bet (in other words, what’s best for you) is to find an accredited trade school or college that offers programs like medical assistant and patient care technologist sciences.

Although licensing is still not available in most locations for either MA or PCT, both professions will fare better in the future if they both become license-requiring professions. In the mean time, you can vie for the titles of “certified” and “clinical,” both of which are provided by private professional organizations that will declare you so if you can pass their test, pay their fees and agree to abide by their established ethics and guidelines. The problem with these certifications, though, is that they don’t have to be honored or recognized by any employer or government agencies, unless they wish to arbitrarily do so.

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Article Written by Rachel Dennis

Rachel Dennis works as both a professional writer and health care provider. She has been a licensed health care provider since 1998, with work experience as a medical assistant, certified nursing assistant and emergency medical technician. She has been writing since 1994 and has been published both on-line and in print.

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