Medical Assistant: Career Info & Requirements

Playing an instrumental role in physician's offices and outpatient clinics, medical assistants provide support that ranges from administrative duties to patient care to laboratory sample processing. Read about the education requirements, necessary skills, employment outlook and salary, to see if this occupation is a good fit for you.

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Career Definition

Working mostly in physician's offices and healthcare clinics, medical assistants perform a variety of routine tasks, supporting doctors and nurses in keeping the practice's operations running efficiently and on schedule. Many medical assistants perform administrative duties, such as filing medical records, scheduling appointments and arranging hospital procedures. Clinical medical assistants work even more closely with doctors and patients, taking vital signs and updating medical records, preparing patients for exams, doing basic laboratory work and facilitating treatment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), www.bls.gov. Some medical assistants even specialize in a particular type of medicine, such as ophthalmology or podiatry.

How to Become a Medical Assistant

Required Education

According to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), www.aama-ntl.org, aspiring medical assistants must graduate from a 2-year associate degree program in medical assistance accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Graduates will be qualified to take the AAMA certification exam to become Certified Medical Assistants (CMAs); the certification must be renewed every five years. This course also opens up the widest path for future advancement; however, students wishing to enter the workforce more quickly may pursue a 1-year medical assistance program through a vocational school to receive a diploma or certificate, at which point they will be qualified for most entry-level medical assistant jobs, according to All Allied Health Schools, www.allalliedhealthschools.com.

Skills Required

Medical assistants often provide the first and last impressions of a physician's practice to the patient, so they should have excellent interpersonal skills and an ability to communicate effectively with patients and colleagues alike. An accredited medical assistance degree program will include coursework to impart essential knowledge in topics like human anatomy, medical terminology, insurance procedures and pharmacology, says the AAMA; those who pursue a 1-year certificate program should ensure that their understanding of these subjects is also comprehensive.

Career Outlook

The BLS forecasts growth in the medical assistance field that is much faster than average for all occupations, at 31%, between 2010 and 2020. The outpatient sector is rapidly expanding, and medical assistants are particularly qualified to serve in these settings, providing cost-effective and valuable support to physicians and nurses. The best job opportunities will be open to Certified Medical Assistants. As of May 2012, the median salary for a medical assistant was $29,370.

Alternate Career Options

Dental Assistant

Those interested in dental assisting will find similar education options to medical assistants; certification requirements vary by state. The duties are also similar, but take place in a dental office setting. Much faster than average employment growth was projected by the BLS from 2010-2020 for this career with an annual median salary of $34,500 in 2012.

Pharmacy Technician

These technicians work in hospitals and pharmacies, filling prescriptions under the supervision of a pharmacist and waiting on customers. Some states require a formal training program with an exam, but other techs learn their skills on the job. In 2012, the BLS reported an annual median salary of $29,320 and expected a much faster than average job increase of 32% during the 2010-2020 decade.

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