Medical clinics and hospitals manage a complicated array of administrative and medical procedures. The medical assistant provides vital support, playing a critical role on the front lines of medical care by ensuring that such logistics proceed smoothly.
Day in the Life of a Medical Assistant
On a typical day, a medical assistant performs a variety of duties. In a small, private practice, a medical assistant may wear many hats, reporting directly to an office manager or care provider. In a larger practice or hospital, a medical assistant can specialize in a specific area as part of a team of medical assistants under the supervision of a department administrator.
Administrative duties may include:
- Updating and filing patient medical records
- Completing and submitting insurance forms
- Arranging for medical services, such as hospital admission and lab tests
- Taking care of medical office correspondence, including answering phones and greeting patients
- Processing billing and bookkeeping
Clinical responsibilities may 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 performing basic tests
- Preparing and administering medication under physician supervision
The type of medical clinic where a medical assistant works may also shape their job description and responsibilities. Some of the specialized roles available to medical assistants include:
- Ophthalmic medical assistants — An ophthalmic medical assistant may conduct diagnostic vision tests using specialized equipment. They often instruct patients in proper eye care and may administer eye medication under the direction of a physician. They may also assist the ophthalmologist in surgery.
- Optometric medical assistants — An optometric medical assistant generally offers the same level of support to an optometrist as noted in the section about opthalmic medical assistants. They instruct patients about contact lens use and care, conduct some diagnostic tests, and provide other assistance under the direction of the optometrist.
- Podiatric medical assistants — Podiatric medical assistants help podiatrists during surgery, make castings of feet, and expose and develop X-rays.
Medical assistants who work for insurance companies make home visits to perform basic exams on patients. And a medical assistant employed by a county jail arranges appointments and transportation for inmates who need to see outside doctors.
Typically, medical assistants find it rewarding to assist physicians and put patients at ease. And if they see the same patients often, they develop a friendly rapport. But a medical assistant's hours can be long and unpredictable, especially when an emergency arises or the office is short-staffed.
Important Characteristics for Medical Assistants
What kind of person makes a good medical assistant? In general, a medical assistant should be patient, compassionate and have good people skills. They should also have good computer skills and pay attention to detail. In some settings, it is important that a medical assistant be flexible enough to work in the field or to work extra hours when emergencies arise.
Typical Steps for Becoming 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 from medical assistant schools. 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 training programs typically include 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. A one-year medical assistant certificate training program leads to a certificate or diploma in medical assisting, while a two-year investment can earn an associate degree.
- Tip: Look for schools that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education School (ABHES).
Becoming certified by nationally recognized medical assistant organizations can provide a competitive edge. While national certification may not be mandatory for employment, it can lead to better pay and increased job opportunities. Certification options are as follows:
- Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) — This designation is conferred by the Certifying Board of the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Individuals who have graduated from accredited medical assistant training programs are eligible for this certification, which is earned by passing a test.
- Medical Assistant (RMA) — This is another popular and valuable certification, and it's conferred by the American Technologists (AMT) agency.
- Medical Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm