Dr. Jan Olson Reviewed By: Dr. Jan Olson
Authored By: Dave Evangelisti
How to Become a Medical Assistant

Over the past decades, medical assisting has emerged as one of the most in-demand in healthcare positions. This is great news as positions with strong demand open potential employment opportunities and higher salaries.  In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates that an additional 150,000+ will be created through the year 2028. The anticipated job growth is about 23% and is about three times the national average of all other jobs. 

If you have an interest in a career as a medical assistant this may just be an ideal career for you.

The responsibilities that a medical assistant is tasked with are quite multi-faceted. A medical assistant must be flexible as countless situations arise among the many different types of clients you will be treating.

The Main Duties of a Medical Assistant

  • Schedule appointments
  • Take vital signs
  • Sterilize equipment
  • Arrange for hospital admission
  • Administer medication under a doctor's supervision
  • Perform diagnostic tests
  • Prepare examination rooms
  • Manage medical records, billing and coding
  • Prepare patients for appointments
  • Record medical history
  • Draw blood

In addition to email and computer software, a medical assistant must have a working knowledge of relevant medical equipment. This includes – 

  • Ophthalmoscopes 
  • Needles
  • Nebulizers
  • Blood pressure units

Although a medical assistant is not required to be certified, most employers prefer a job applicant that holds a certification.

Many professional schools and universities offer training programs dedicated to preparing medical assistants with real-world education.  Medical Assistants have the option of earning a Medical Assistant Certificate (in approximately 9 – 12 months) or an Associate’s degree, which takes between 1.5 and 2 years to complete. 

With the advent and popularity of online learning, a medical assistant program is now delivered in three different formats - on-campus, online, or a combination of both - the hybrid format. For those interested in working as a certified medical assistant, confirm that the medical assistant program you choose has received accreditation from  

  • The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs - CAAHEP
  • The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools - ABHES

On-Campus Programs 

The medical assistant programs that are campus-based require students to complete their coursework and lab work in a campus environment. Campus-based training programs are less flexible as classes and lab time is pre-determined by the school’s department chairs or administrative personnel. Classes may be scheduled during the morning, the afternoon or the evening. 

Medical Assistant Online Programs 

The medical assistant programs that are delivered through a distance-learning platform offer the convenience and flexibility often needed by working learners. Very often online programs allow a working learner to maintain their full-time job while studying for a medical assistant’s certification. 

However, if it is your choice to work in a clinical setting as a medical assistant, you will need to complete an externship as a medical assistant, before you can graduate. An externship sets up a pragmatic way a student can test the theoretical components taught in traditional classrooms or online.  

An externship requires a program candidate to work alongside professional medical assistants to gain real-world experience. It is there that students can apply the skills they have learned in real-time. If an externship is required, most professional schools and colleges have systems in place that reach to local clinics, doctor's offices, and other medical facilities.

Hybrid Format Programs Delivered 

The medical assistant programs that are delivered in a hybrid format allow certain coursework to be completed online, often asynchronously. The practical applications of theoretical knowledge and lab work must be completed on-campus. A hybrid medical assistant training program is often a great option with its added flexibility when compared to campus-based training programs. 

A Word about On-the-Job Training 

While deciding to jump into a medical assistant position without any formal education is the fastest entry into the profession, it is often challenging to find a medical facility or professional who is willing to assume the risk of an untrained medical assistant. 

There are physicians and nurse practitioners that are willing to offer the right candidate on the job training; which allows you to become trained while earning a salary. Note, however, that you must possess a high school diploma or GED. Consider the pros and cons of choosing an on the job training pathway to become a medical assistant noted below -

  • For – You may be able to find a job faster than with a formal training program.  
  • For – Essentially, you will receive a salary while being trained.
  • Against – Finding a medical assistant position is easier with certification.
  • Against – Non-certified medical assistants typically earn a lower wage.

It is important to note that the terms of registration and certification are used interchangeably with regard to the medical assisting credential. Essentially, the only real difference between the two terms is a function of the professional organization or association to which one belongs.

The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) offers a CMA certification (which requires an exam), whereas the American Registry of Medical Assistants (ARMA) offers registration. 

One of the most surefire pathways to gainful employment as a medical assistant is to obtain a Medical Assistant Certification by enrolling in a medical assistant training program that is sanctioned by the AAMA (American Association for Medical Assistants). 

Medical Assistant training programs generally run about 2 years and culminate with the CMA Certification Exam. [This is discussed in detail further on in the narrative. While the course and the certification exam will require an investment, a certified medical assistant will find that -

  • It is significantly easier to land a medical assistant position with a certification.
  • A certified medical assistant is generally offered a higher salary.

As noted previously, earning your certification is not a requirement for those who wish to become a medical assistant as a career. However, it does have its benefits as noted above.

If you wish to sit for the Certified Medical Assistant Exam (CMA),  you are required to complete a training program offered through a school that is accredited by a Medical Assistant academic oversight agency. The exam is offered three times a year – January, June, and October. 

The cost of the exam is contingent upon the professional organization to which you are a member-

  • AAMA, ABHES, CAAHEP, NCCA members- between $95 - $145. 
  • Non-members -  $195.

Preparing for the Medical Assistant Certification Exam

It is a smart idea to allow you enough time to prepare for the Medical Assistant Exam.  

The National Center for Competency Testing Medical Assistant  (NCCT – MCMA)) 

The NCCT covers 150 questions regarding the various medical assistant functions and duties. Take the time to practice with these free practice tests. 

Free NCCT Practice Tests from Test-Guide.com

The American Association of Medical Assistant (AAMA- CMA) 

The CMA Medical Assistant exam covers 180 questions regarding the various medical assistant functions and duties. Take sufficient time to practice with these free practice tests. 

Free CMA Practice Tests from Test-Guide.com

The American Medical Technologists (AMT – RMA)

The RMA Medical Assistant exam covers 200-210 questions regarding the various medical assistant functions and duties. Be certain to spend enough time to practice with these free practice tests. 

Free RMA Practice Tests from Test-Guide.com

The Benefits of Medical Assistant Certification

From an overall perspective, improving your knowledge and earning professional certifications can never be viewed as anything positive. 

However, the more tangible benefits one receives become obvious when one examines the salary variances between a certified medical assistant and a medical assistant without certification. Be certain to avoid confusing the fact that if you graduate from a medical assistant training program, you are not yet a certified medical assistant. 

  • To receive a higher wage (on average approximately $10,000 per year). 
  • Additional job opportunities. 
  • Additional upward mobility options.
  • Reveal to potential employees how current your knowledge is as Medical Assistant Certification requires the completion of continuing education courses, as required, and renew the Medical Assistant certification every five years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical assistant salary data is as follows for 2018 –

  • Median Salary of $33,610; this translates to $16.16 per hour. Salary statistics vary and are contingent upon one's specialty, experience, and location.
  • The number of Employed Medical Assistants employed in the country is 686,600.

Perhaps one of the most positive employment statistics for the job availability for medical assistants is the anticipated job growth through 2028. While the national average growth for all industries and positions combined is about 8%, while the expected job outlook for medical assistants in the same period is a robust 23% - much faster than average. The BLS anticipates an additional 150,000+ job opportunities for medical assistants through 2028.

For the complete details on salary information, see our article: How Much do Medical Assistants Make?


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