Medical clinics and hospitals manage a complicated array of administrative and medical procedures in the course of delivering health services. The medical assistant plays a critical role in ensuring that these logistics proceed smoothly. Serving as vital support staff on the front lines of medical care, medical assistants handle everything from answering phones to performing diagnostic lab tests.
What Does a Medical Assistant Do?
Medical assistants perform a wide range of clinical and administrative tasks to keep a private practice, medical clinic, or hospital flowing smoothly. Learning how to become a medical assistant is an exercise in cross-functional training. You will learn how to do administrative duties, as well as clinical tasks.
Some administrative duties include:
- Updating and filing patient medical records
- Completing and submitting insurance forms
- Arrange for medical services, such as hospital admission and lab tests
- Take care of medical office correspondence, including answering phones and greeting patients
- Process billing and bookkeeping
Clinical responsibilities include:
- Taking medical histories
- Recording vital signs
- Preparing patients for medical examination and explaining treatment procedures
- Assisting physicians during exams
- Collecting and preparing lab specimens and perform basic tests
- Preparing and administering medication, under physician supervision
Medical Assisting Specializations
The type of medical clinic will also shape your job description. Some of the specialized roles available to medical assistants include:
- Ophthalmic medical assistants - Conduct diagnostic vision tests, using specialized instruments to measure and record vision and test eye muscles for healthy function. They instruct patients in proper eye care and may administer eye medication under the direction of a physician. Ophthalmic medical assistants may also assist the ophthalmologist in surgery.
- Optometric medical assistants - Offer the same level of support to optometrists. They instruct patients about contact lens use and care, conduct some diagnostic tests, and provide other chair-side assistance to the optometrist.
- Podiatric medical assistants - Help podiatrists in surgery, make castings of feet, and expose and develop X-rays.
Your exact duties as a medical assistant depend on both the size of your clinic and the type of services available there. An intimate private practice may challenge you to wear many hats, reporting directly to an office manager or the care provider. At a larger practice or hospital, you can specialize in a specific area under the supervision of a department administrator, as part of a team of medical assistants.
What Are the Steps to Become a Medical Assistant?
There are several routes to becoming a medical assistant. You can learn how to become a medical assistant on the job, but most employers expect some formal education. Generally, the path to a medical assistant career looks something like this:
- Build a knowledge base for your medical assisting career in high school by taking courses in health, biology, mathematics, bookkeeping, computers, and office skills.
- Volunteer at a local hospital or clinic to gain experience and insight into the medical assisting career.
- Earn a certificate, diploma, or associate degree in medical assisting. Medical assistant programs typically have a combination of classroom and hands-on clinical training. You can find one- and two-year programs in medical assisting at vocational or technical high schools, adult vocational schools, and colleges. One-year programs lead to a certificate or diploma in medical assisting, while a two-year investment earns you an associate degree.
- Pursue an internship to forge practical skills, or proceed directly into an entry-level job as a medical assistant.
How to Become a GREAT Medical Assistant
Medical assisting is a broad designation covering entry-level administrative assistants as well as seasoned professionals. A great medical assistant offers either breadth or depth of expertise. Depending on the medical office, you might deliver the most value by determining what needs to be done and in what order to achieve efficient patient care. Or you might advance into specialized clinical responsibilities, reducing the workload of medical practitioners through your skilled assistance.
Here's how to become a medical assistant of the highest order. Advance your professional standing and capacity through:
- Certification: Demonstrate commitment to the field through voluntary certification. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) and the Association of Medical Technologists (AMT) both award credentials to medical assistants who can demonstrate proficiency in administrative, clinical, or specialty medical assisting.
- Continuing Education: Advance your knowledge to keep pace with new developments in health services delivery. Continuing education courses can help you hone your skills in business management, medical billing and coding, or health administration. You can also expand your training with specialized clinical courses and certification in areas such as X-ray technology, ophthalmology and optometry, and clinical lab science.
- Teach: Teaching others medical assisting helps you solidify your own knowledge and can establish you as an authority in the field.
- Join Professional Associations: Become a member of the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) or a local professional group in order to connect with other medical assistants, find job opportunities, and access training seminars.
Medical assisting offers a world of career opportunity for ambitious health care workers. One of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S., medical assisting is forecasted to grow about 34 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With formal training in medical assisting, you can tap into this surge of job opportunities and help the health care industry meet growing patient demand in the coming decade.