This blog is the eighth in a series of profiles of different clinical health professions represented by Health Professions Network member organizations. These profiles are intended to give students and those looking at prospective careers in health care an accurate, professional perspective on different health care fields, specialties and careers. "A Day in the Life of a Medical Assistant" was developed by Cathy Cassata of the American Association of Medical Assistants, or AAMA, an HPN member organization.
Table of Contents
- What is a Medical Assistant?
- Goals and rewards of being a Medical Assistant
- Becoming a Medical Assistant
- Salary & Job Outlook for Medical Assistants
As part of the health care delivery team, medical assistants work alongside physicians in many specialties, mainly in outpatient or ambulatory care facilities, such as medical practices and clinics. However, some medical assistants work in other delivery settings, such as vaccination clinics and certain departments in hospitals.
Medical assistants are cross-trained to perform clinical and administrative duties. Their responsibilities vary from practice to practice, depending on the specialty, location, size, and state laws.
“What sets medical assistants apart from other health care professions is the versatility they provide [while supporting] the physician and the patient,” says Chris Hollander, CMA (AAMA), a member of the Continuing Education Board of the American Association of Medical Assistants® (AAMA). “Through their knowledge, medical assistants are more in tune with a community of resources and can provide the support the physician needs in clinical and administrative skills.”
The following are some medical assisting duties evidenced by the Occupational Analysis of Medical Assistants.
Clinical Duties (may include, but not limited to):
- Taking medical histories
- Explaining treatment procedures to patients
- Preparing patients for examinations
- Assisting the physician during examinations
- Collecting and preparing laboratory specimens
- Performing basic laboratory tests
- Instructing patients about medication and special diets
- Preparing and administering medications, including by intramuscular, intradermal, and subcutaneous injections—including vaccinations/immunizations, as directed by a physician or other licensed provider (e.g., a nurse practitioner or physician assistant)
- Transmitting prescription refills as directed
- Taking electrocardiograms
- Wound care and changing dressings
Administrative Duties (may include, but not limited to):
- Using computer applications
- Answering telephones
- Welcoming patients
- Updating and filing patient medical records
- Coding and filling out insurance forms
- Scheduling appointments
- Arranging for hospital admissions and laboratory services
- Handling correspondence, billing, and bookkeeping
Medical assistants also act as patient liaisons. In this role, they are instrumental in helping patients feel at ease in the physician’s office by explaining the physician's instructions and answering patients’ questions.
Additionally, medical assistants are essential members of the patient-centered medical home (PCMH) team. Medical assistants ranked as one of the top five professionals necessary to the PCMH team, according to a survey by the Healthcare Intelligence Network.
“The medical assistant is trained in critical thinking skills, intake screening, and patient education,” says Deborah Novak, CMA (AAMA), the 2018–2021 Speaker of the AAMA House of Delegates. “This makes them vital team members of the patient-centered medical home model. They provide education on needed preventive care measures.”
The versatility medical assisting offers sets the profession apart from others in health care and makes it a satisfying career choice for those who value having a variety of skills. “Being educated in all areas of the practice makes [medical assistants] a more valuable asset,” says Novak. “They have the knowledge and skills needed to cover multiple areas of the practice.” As a result, medical assistants have options to pursue positions that focus on clinical or administrative duties—or a combination of both.
Further, these health care professionals are well-positioned to transition into educational settings, and many find success as educators or program coordinators.
Additionally, medical assistants are in a unique position to interact with patients and help patients navigate their care. “As the physician’s main focus is the diagnosis and treatment of the patient,” says Hollander, “the medical assistant is there to support and provide resources … that allow patients to make good and solid decisions about their health care.”
Overall, the diverse role medical assistants play and the emphasis on providing quality patient care contribute to a fulfilling career.
Many medical assistants graduate from postsecondary education programs offered at community colleges, vocational schools, and technical schools. The time to complete a medical assisting program ranges from one to two years, and graduates receive a certificate, diploma, or associate degree upon completion.
In all programs, students can expect to take classes in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, law and ethics, and the administrative aspects of medical assisting.
After graduation, medical assistants can choose to become credentialed.
Graduates of medical assisting programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)—or equivalent academic programs—are eligible to take the CMA (AAMA)® Certification Exam offered by the AAMA to become a Certified Medical Assistant® (AAMA).
As part of the program, medical assistants must also complete a practicum (i.e., a supervised on-site work experience in an ambulatory health care setting), before taking the CMA (AAMA) Certification Exam and/or another medical assisting certification examination. Read more about Exam Application Steps.
The AAMA offers continuing education opportunities to all medical assistants, whether they want to earn continuing education units (CEUs) to show employers they are current in the field and/or to earn recertification points to recertify their CMA (AAMA) credential by continuing education.
Every day the AAMA responds to more than 100 employer requests for CMA (AAMA) certification verification—for both current and potential employees.
“Staying current with my certification allows me to be familiar with the current trends [in health care] and knowledge of diseases, symptoms, conditions, and treatments, [so I can] better understand and serve our patients’ needs and situations,” says Novak.
Medical assisting is one of the nation's in-demand careers, growing much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This growth is due to several factors:
- Growing number of older Americans who need medical treatment
- Predicted surge in the number of licensed provider practices and outpatient care facilities resulting from a greater percentage of care being provided in ambulatory rather than inpatient settings
- Greater cost pressures on outpatient settings that require the employment of multiskilled and cross-trained allied health professionals
The BLS reports that medical assistants who are certified and have familiarity with electronic health records (EHRs) may have better job prospects.
In May 2019, the median annual wage for medical assistants was $34,800, with the highest 10% earning more than $48,720, according to the BLS. Below are median annual wages for medical assistants in the top industries in which they worked:
- Outpatient care centers: $36,810
- Hospitals (state, local, and private): $36,080
- Physician practices: $34,870
Reports on wages for CMA (AAMA)–certified medical assistants are available from the AAMA in their annual Compensation and Benefits Report.