Medical assisting remains one of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation. For those who want to qualify for work as a medical assistant, this comprehensive guide can provide insight and, hopefully, a little relief. In addition to resources and data, it discussed, in detail, the coursework and academic requirements for certificates and degrees in medical assisting and related fields. Students looking for financial help will find examples of scholarships dedicated to the study of medical assisting. Finally, search tools showcase locations across the country with the best job opportunities and salary potential.
Medical assistants work in one of the nation’s fastest-growing occupations. Career requirements and duties vary broadly from state to state and by the type of health practice in which assistants perform their clinical and administrative roles. Practitioners that hire medical assistants include physicians, optometrists, chiropractors and podiatrists. The diversity in medical practice opens up a broad range of facilities where medical assistants find jobs. The list includes hospitals, physicians’ offices, urgent care centers, public health service organizations, laboratories, and extended care facilities.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that today’s employers favor recruiting medical assistants that have completed formal post-secondary training programs. Because the duties and respective wages for medical assistants vary by employer and state regulations, students should look into the range of certificate and degree programs offered by colleges, universities and medical specialty schools.
An equally important consideration is whether students view their education as a terminal degree or a stepping-stone to an advanced college education to qualify for other health care careers. Community colleges and trade schools offer two-year associate degrees in medical assisting, while four-year schools have developed bachelor degree programs in assisting that build on initial skills to prepare graduates for more advanced clinical responsibilities.
To enter the field in most states, a trained medical assistant may also be required to pass a qualifying examination. Medical assisting program graduates may also wish to pursue professional certifications after they have worked a year or more.
Undergraduate medical assisting programs may focus on both the clinical and administrative roles in health care settings. Depending on their career goals and respective training, medical assistants may specialize in clinical work, administrative work, or both.
The fields of study prepare students for independent or combined roles as:
Medical assistants provide clinical and administrative support to doctors, chiropractors, podiatrists, and other health care providers. Administrative tasks usually include record keeping, preparing and maintaining treatment rooms, gathering necessary background information from patients, and ensuring a patient’s overall comfort during treatments and visits. Clinical tasks performed by medical assistants may include collecting blood or tissue samples, cleaning and sterilizing instruments, and performing routine laboratory tests. They work closely with patients to explain treatments, medications, and doctors’ instructions.
Medical equipment preparers perform necessary setup, maintenance, and cleanup on medical equipment. This can include sterilizing equipment with steam autoclaves, keeping records of sterilization procedures, examining equipment for leaks, defects, or worn parts, and reporting any defects to supervisors. These medical professionals also stock crash carts with supplies and assemble surgical instrument trays for routine setups or special orders.
Medical secretaries perform various clerical and administrative duties to ensure that a medical facility or office runs smoothly and efficiently. Responsibilities may include answering telephones, scheduling appointments, and maintaining medical records. These professionals use their knowledge of medical terminology and hospital, clinic, or laboratory procedures as well as computer programs to prepare reports, invoices, medical records, and other necessary documents for physicians.
Medical transcriptionists transcribe recordings created by physicians and health care workers into written documents. They use knowledge of medical terminology, abbreviations, and shorthand to develop clear and readable text detailing office or emergency room visits, chart reviews, operations, and more. They may also take dictation during these procedures, using shorthand or a stenotype machine, and then transcribe notes to full text afterward.
Similar occupations include nursing assistants, ophthalmic/optometric medical assistants, medical records technicians, and podiatric medical assistants.
Career training and medical assisting degree programs are offered by junior colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and medical trade schools. High school students considering a post-secondary education in medical assisting should complete their secondary school courses in anatomy, chemistry, math, and biology to get a head start on their careers. The BLS emphasizes the importance of analytical skills, interpersonal skills and an attention to detail as career assets.
Prospective students should take their own educational vital signs. Do they prefer the academic accomplishment of a college degree and, if so, at what levels? Two-year associate and four-year bachelor degree programs in medical assisting also involve the completion of core general education requirements. In addition to clinical and administrative medical coursework, students in degree programs may also be required to complete courses in college writing, mathematics, social sciences, applied sciences and the humanities.
Not all students have the ability to commute or relocate to attend a post-secondary program in medical assisting. For those with family obligations or work commitments that can’t be compromised, there are online medical assisting training and degree programs. There’s more than one way to complete medical assistant training online, too. Some schools offer a 100-percent online program, where students complete all their coursework from the location of their choice, at the time of their choosing. At the end of the semester, they may be required to complete laboratory/clinical hours at a nearby medical facility or campus lab. There are also hybrid online programs where students complete lectures and assignments on the Web and visit campus for evening or concentrated weekend lab meetings.
Online medical assisting degree programs are as rigorous as their campus-based counterparts, and require students to maintain course progress. Although students participate remotely, they find help just a log-on away in the form of research materials, student discussion boards or chat-rooms, and instructor email. The interface is not technical and typically is as easy to use as a Web browser, video viewer, and email program. Lectures and instructor notes are typically recorded and available 24/7. By nature, successful online students are dedicated, self-directed, and focused. Many build effective and lasting relationships with peers and mentors in the field.
Online Associate of Science in Medical Assisting degrees prepare students for a career as a medical assistant, supporting nurses and physicians at private offices, clinics, hospitals and other health care facilities. The degree also prepares students to sit for certification exams. Most programs consist of 60 to 65 credit hours, which cover both general studies and core courses in medical assisting. Administrative courses can to be completed fully online, but some in-person classroom participation is usually required for clinical hands-on training. Such training generally covers phlebotomy material. Medical assisting degree programs are usually administered by Allied Health and Nursing departments at most colleges, and include courses such as medical terminology, exam room procedures, clinical perspectives, ethics, patient education, administrative office procedures and managing electronic patient health records. Students who graduate with online medical assisting degrees can sit for the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) and the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) examinations.
It will take two years to complete requirements for an associate’s degree in medical assisting. Program length and requirements vary by institution. Typically, an associate degree is comprised of core general education courses and major studies in the field that add up to between 60-66 credit hours. Students make progress through the general and major courses, each semester building on knowledge from the previous selection of classes. In the first year, students may find a stimulating mix of classes in pharmacology, coding, and anatomy, along with general education studies in psychology, English, math, and history. In the second year, courses in the medical assisting major are more challenging and advanced. Laboratory hours are required.
|Medical Terminology||Basic introduction to the terminology used in a medical or dental office. Students learn how to decipher a new word using root words, medical abbreviations, and symbols.|
|Insurance, Billing and Coding||Students learn the systems and rules that govern recording and reporting of medical procedures and codes used in diagnoses, along with preparation and submission of insurance documents.|
|Introduction to Phlebotomy||With an emphasis on patient safety, sample identification, and precautions, this course outlines the skills and techniques for collecting blood in children, adults and infants.|
|Patient Care||This introduction to clinical office procedures includes training in taking vital signs, conducting basic physical examinations, and overview of medical office ethics.|
|Pharmacology Administration||Students learn to prepare and administer oral medications, injections, or inhalation therapy with a special focus on safety and infection control.|
|Human Health and Disease||The course combines a study of physiology and anatomy along with the most-common diseases that are typically diagnosed in medical offices.|
Medical assisting majors can complete their bachelor’s degree in four years. Four-year programs are comprehensive and more advanced than studies that lead to an associate degree. Students that choose this option are often interested in completing their training to enter the workplace while they prepare for advanced careers in fields like clinic management or health care administration. In sum, these four-year programs confer accredited bachelor’s degrees to students who want a rounded health care education leading to a number of professional options.
|Human Anatomy and Physiology||Lectures and laboratory sections make up this introductory study of human structure and major body systems.|
|Clinical Competencies||All medical procedures share a common set of requirements including health history, asepsis, examinations, diagnoses, and documentation. Students work though each step in the clinical process.|
|Law and Medical Ethics||A study of medical law and ethics and the applications, terminology, professional liability, privacy regulations, and patient consent involved in day-to-day clinical practice.|
|Advanced Human Anatomy and Physiology||In this continuation of first-year human anatomy and physiology, students examine human systems as well as tissues, organs and cells. Topics vary by semester and may include immune, cardiopulmonary and gastrointestinal systems.|
|EKG Interpretation||This basic, but comprehensive, course introduces students to practical skills in reading and interpreting electrocardiogram results.|
|Medical Assisting Externship||Conducted in the final year, students volunteer for clinical experience in a medical facility. Under direct supervision, students integrate their clinical and administrative skills in a professional setting.|
There are four certifications for medical assistants that are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. Certifications are voluntary and may boost assisting credentials as well as earning power. Once an assistant has obtained a certification, they are typically required to complete ongoing education every year to retain their credentials. Here is a breakdown of them:
Students considering enrollment in an undergraduate college program in medical assisting may find tuition and fees just beyond their financial reach. Accredited colleges and medical trade schools typically offer the full range of loans and college grants, but even these may fall short of meeting student needs. Scholarships for associate and bachelor’s degree programs in medical assisting are available, and not all are based on academic performance. Students are not obliged to repay need- or academic-based scholarships and fellowships. However, there are many applicants and often it’s the students who are savvy enough to apply to well-matched scholarships who succeed. The list below illustrates the range of awards that are available to support medical assistant training:
Accreditation protects the value of professional certificates and/or degrees from a college or medical trade school. Since accreditation is voluntary, students should be cautious about the academic standards of prospective schools that haven’t had a formal, respected peer evaluation. Accrediting organizations exist on the national and regional levels. Some accreditation associations for the allied health fields are directly related to the school’s academic specialties.
Students should realize it’s in both the schools’ and students’ interests for the institution to seek and maintain non-partial accreditations by a recognized body. Accrediting organizations investigate whether the school offers programs that meet or exceed academic requirements for their courses, majors, and degrees. In some cases, schools without accreditation may be disqualified from offering federal student financial aid programs. Finally, the accreditation process helps colleges determine which credits from previous post-secondary programs will be accepted for college transfer students.
Major accrediting organizations that monitor schools offering medical assistant training programs include the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. Online colleges often seek regional accreditation from the National Distance Learning Association, the Distance Education Training Council, and others.