What is a Medical Assistant

A Medical Assistant is an individual who works alongside a health physician by carrying out outpatient care procedures. Their primary role is to facilitate the administrative and clinical tasks in the offices of physicians, hospitals and several other healthcare facilities. Medical assisting has tremendously grown in the past decade than most of the other careers in healthcare.

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It has seen professional medical assistants stream in from colleges, hence becoming very competitive. The current trend followed by the medical assistant is to become a Certified Medical Assistant to have an edge in the healthcare industry. The CMA certification shows that one has peaked in the career, improved their employability and expertise significantly.

What do Medical Assistants Do?

Medical assistants are valuable people whose works span a great area in the health care industry. They act as the cogs, playing a part in the larger operation undertaken by doctors. Some of their handy works include administering medications, assisting with minor diagnostic procedures, obtaining the test results from the laboratories, performing electrocardiograms, providing therapeutic advice to outpatients as instructed by the physicians and monitoring of patient life support equipment to name a few.

Based on the above lengthy outline of just a fraction of their duties, it is quite clear that medical assistants are more than relevant personnel in the field of healthcare. Therefore, becoming a medical assistant requires rigorous training and an in-depth orientation in the field of correct medical practices. Their training encompasses both clinical and administrative duties. That multi-dimensional aspect is unique to the medical assistants and is what separates them from the other healthcare professionals.

On the clinical side of the medical assistant training, the primary role of these talented professionals is to record the patients’ vitals and keep a record of their history. They can go as far administering medication, but only under the supervision of a qualified doctor. On the other hand, their administrative functions include scheduling of appointments, billing of the outpatients and providing patients with insight in filling insurance documentation among others.

These services of medical assistants have mostly been witnessed in hospitals and clinics. However, in the recent past, more of the medical assistants have been seen to join the private practice sector. That is attributing to the fact that their employment introduces an aspect of cost effectiveness and efficiency in the medical procedures. The doctors in private practice rely on the medical assistants to assist them in managing the broad complications of the patient care and the general management of their roles. The difference between the assistants in clinics and hospitals from those in the private practice is that the latter are highly specialized to the unique needs of the patients.

They are more relevant in the private practice with limited doctors in the sense that they make it possible for the physician to see more patients simultaneously. They are obligated to attend to the patients who’ve received the doctor’s attention and are awaiting discharge, medication or those who are in recuperation bays. Most hospitals are hiring the medical assistants who can also double as scheduling administrators in clerical duties. It allows the organizations to cut down the staff but maintain their efficiency, thanks to the medical assistants.

You can read here more about the duties and responsibilities of Medical Assistants.

Training Basics

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.

The Education and Training Undergone by Medical Assistants

The International Standard of Classification of Occupations requires the medical assistants to undergo training to ensure a competent delivery of their duties. The training of medical assistants takes place in vocational schools, community colleges, technical schools, proprietary colleges and online educational platforms to name a few. At the end of the course, the candidates usually receive either a diploma or a certificate for a one year course and an associate degree for a two-year period.

Accredited training programs will provide the medical assistants with a complete training routine as well as an in-course attachment to have a real life practical complimenting the coursework. An additional swapping of the trainees among different hospitals will also equip the medical assistants with diversified skills which can help them solve medical problems of all kinds on their career.

The medical assistants’ curriculum involves medical terminology, anatomy, and physiology. After that, they are to attend a clinical internship to help acquaint themselves with the field of healthcare. The type of training school attended by the medical assistant will influence their employability. Since the profession is quite demanding because it deals with human health, hospitals and clinics will not hire any medical assistant from a school whose license of practice is questionable.

As the medical assistants advance in their careers, they are required to be adaptable to the ever-evolving medical field to avoid being faced out by technology. It is their responsibility to grow in their career and to learn new software for data analysis.


Most employers require medical assistants to have certification, usually from the American Association of Medical Assistants or American Medical Technologists. With the fast developing field of healthcare and introduction of the electronic health records, becoming a certified medical assistant will give the candidates an edge. Licensing is a way through which the responsible bodies for the placement of the medical assistants ensure quality and skill.

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.

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.

What is the Difference between a Medical Assistant and a Licensed Practical Nurse?

The two positions are often similar and confusing to most people. You may be tempted at one point to refer to them interchangeably. However, there are clear-cut differences between a licensed practical nurse and a medical assistant. The first difference lies in their job specification. A Licensed Practical Nurse is a fully-fledged nurse while a medical assistant is just an assistant offering handy work. Medical assistants’ main areas of expertise are the ambulatory services, contrary to the nurses who specialize in the hospital and clinical care niche.

Another big difference is that the medical assistants work in close collaboration with patients under the supervision of the doctor or physician on call. Consequently, they handle logistics such as the patient’s paperwork under the direction of a physician. Nurses, however, have the capacity to work under the guidance of a doctor and can take part in the treatment and surgery processes.

The two professionals can both collect samples and administer injections and vaccinations. They occasionally help in minor surgeries which are in their standard training. Both Medical assisting and licensed practical nursing are noble professions in the health industry and will always remain competitive and prestigious.

Ideal Characteristics and Skills of a Certified Medical Assistant

Just as discussed in the above section, the medical assistant job is quite vital but also demanding for the practitioners. Therefore, not everyone fits the criteria of becoming a certified medical assistant. The ideal candidate for a medical assistant career should be very empathetic, dependable, and have a high capability to tolerate stress. Since they are supposed to collect sensitive but vital information from the patients, they are required to be immensely courteous, discrete and full of integrity. That way they will be able to win over the patients’ trust in the shortest time possible to facilitate the treatment process.

Usually commendable certified medical assistants can pay attention to detail, have a sharp eye and dexterity to work adroitly in a hospital setting. It is quite practical in the case where they have to work side by side with the doctor in an emergency or a surgery situation. Consequently, top medical assistants should have a passion for providing help, education, and advice to the patient. They should display traits that make them forward the patients’ request diligently to the doctors and vice versa.

In addition to the personality virtues and characteristics required by this profession, there are also particularly applied skills that should be portrayed by the certified medical assistants. The first crucial skill that the candidates should possess is excellent communication skills. Not only should the medical assistant be great in written and verbal work but they also have to be great listeners. This will provide them with the desirable ability to ask the relevant questions to either the patient or the physician. Also, they should be in a position to express their ideas explicitly to the patient and the doctor to facilitate the treatment procedure.

The candidates are required to have sharp analytical skills to have a successful medical assistant career. Being able to assess the condition of a patient in the absence of the doctor can save lives from time to time. Certified Medical Assistants should have the capabilities to carry out medical coding procedures whose primary purpose is to provide accurate billings for the patients. Such data are usually stored in databases; hence, the medical assistant should be able to manipulate databases, operate the standard medical software and applications.

Other requirements include technical skills such as the ability to handle the various medical instruments. Most of their job description revolves around using special tools to perform the routine vital sign checks and care.

Job Outlook

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.

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Get information on Medical Assistant programs by entering your zip code and request enrollment information.

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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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