Medical Assistant Schools and Programs
The healthcare industry in the United States is growing rapidly with no signs of slowing down. In fact, most healthcare professions can expect impressive growth over the next decade. As healthcare continues to boom, medical assistants will be in high demand to support the growing field. This guide will discuss what a medical assistant is, how to become one and what to expect when working as a medical assistant.
Medical assistants provide administrative and clinical support to doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff. Job duties can include filling out insurance forms, billing, administering medications, medical record keeping, collecting certain samples for testing, and performing routine medical tasks such as taking blood pressure and temperature.
Generally speaking, there is no formal educational requirement in order to become a medical assistant. However, most employers looking to hire medical assistants require an associate degree or certificate. Becoming a medical assistant can be a viable way to obtain employment and experience in the medical profession and learn how a medical office or organization works without having to attend four or more years of college. Since a certificate can be obtained in about one year of fulltime study and an associate degree in about two years, most medical assisting programs can be found in junior or community colleges.
Generally speaking, vocational schools do not offer associate degrees in medical assisting, but instead offer programs that lead to a certificate or diploma and training that will allow students to sit for a medical assisting certification exam, such as the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) certification examination for Certified Medical Assistant (CMA), the American Medical Technologists (AMT) certification examination for Registered Medical Assistant (RMA), or the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) examination for Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA). Most medical assisting programs at vocational schools last about one year, depending on the program.
In contrast to most vocational schools, community colleges with medical assisting programs offer associate degrees. They might also offer a medical assisting certificate or diploma program. Most community colleges offer either an Associate of Science or an Associate of Applied Science degree for medical assisting. After completing either program, students should prepared to sit for a medical assisting certification exam.
Associate degree programs usually take two years to complete, assuming a full class load. In addition to class work related to medical assisting, the associate degree typically requires general education classes such as English, writing and history. These general education requirements vary depending on the school. One of the advantages of earning the associate degree is the ability to use the degree as a stepping stone; many of the associate degree classes often count toward the bachelor’s degree, effectively reducing a bachelor’s degree from four years to two if all associate degree requirements are met
There are hundreds of programs available to prospective students wishing to become medical assistants. Most programs can be broken down into either associate degree programs or diploma/certificate programs. Besides those differences, the following is a list of important factors to consider when choosing the right medical assisting program.
As discussed previously, there is no minimum certification, licensure or educational requirement to become a medical assistant. As a result, graduating from a non-accredited school would not officially bar a student from becoming a medical assistant, but it could be a disadvantage, given the competitive nature of the medical assistant workforce. Additionally, graduating from a non-accredited program will preclude the student from sitting for certain exams. For example, in order to sit for the Certified Medical Assistant Certification Exam, applicants must graduate from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Accreditation helps ensure a given program meets specific academic standards so students will receive a sufficient level of training and education.
Medical assisting certification examination passage rates
Given the importance of becoming a certified medical assistant, one significant factor to consider when deciding among medical assisting schools and programs is how successful their graduates are at passing a given exam and becoming certified. Becoming a certified medical assistant could help a new graduate stand out from the crowd when entering the workforce. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies currently accredits five certifications for medical assistants:
- Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association
- Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants
- National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association
- Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists
Opportunities for work experience
Obtaining hands-on experience before entering the medical assisting workforce may be another meaningful way for students to stand out after graduating from medical assisting school. Work experience may not only help make the student more marketable, but it can also provide the chance for students to apply their classroom knowledge to the real world.
Does the school offer alternative learning formats or times to take classes, such as online, night or weekends? Is there flexibility in the pace at which a student can complete their medical assisting program? When choosing the right program, flexibility in taking classes is very important, especially if the student is already a working professional or has family obligations and other commitments. While this might extend the time it takes to graduate, being able to take classes on their own schedule or at their own pace can make it possible for certain students to enter the medical assisting program.
A school’s ability to assist its graduates in finding gainful employment is one of the more practical considerations for prospective students to review when choosing a medical assisting school. After all, the point of entering into a medical assisting program is to become a medical assistant. Look for schools that have a career services department, provide opportunities to attend job fairs and other networking and job seeking events, a wide breadth of alumni network, and an affiliation or relationship with potential medical assisting employers, such as hospitals.
Gainful employment for graduates
When comparing medical assisting programs, look at the employment numbers of graduates who are practicing as medical assistants or in a related profession. These are usually given as “employed at graduation” or a certain time after graduation, such as six months. Obviously schools with higher numbers are better, but sometimes they can require a closer look. For example, one school may have a higher employment numbers, but only students with jobs responded to an optional post-graduate survey, or the graduates are working in a field completely unrelated to medical assisting. This extra digging may require research or a call to the school, but it can properly explain a given employment statistic and provide a clearer picture of a prospective student’s employment outlook upon graduating from a particular program.
Percentage of graduates that default on loans
Fortunately, most medical assisting programs are reputable and allow their graduates to be in a better position after graduation than before, improving their professional and financial outlook. However, not all schools give the same chances for professional success. The percentage of a school’s graduates who default on their loans can provide one element to deciding how successful graduates are. The lower the default rate, the more likely the student has found desired employment and the lower the tuition and other costs of attendance is likely to be.
While not required, most medical assistants have at least a certification or associate degree in medical assisting. Some may have obtained a high school diploma and took part in on-the-job training to get the medical assisting position, but these are the exception. In today’s competitive medical assisting workforce, it is not recommended aspiring medical assists take this route.
As touched on earlier, one option for prospective students is to obtain a certificate or diploma in medical assisting. This path usually takes about one year to complete and approximately 35 to 40 credits, depending on the program and curriculum path.
The second option is to obtain an associate degree. An associate degree usually takes about two years to complete, can be either an associate degree or an associate of applied science degree, and consists of about 90 credits work of coursework.
Depending on the medical assisting school, students will graduate with either an associate degree or an associate of applied science degree. The associate degree is more academic in nature and is geared toward students who eventually want to get another degree, such as a bachelor’s. The Associate of Applied Science degree is more practical and vocational in nature, theoretically preparing students to immediately enter the workforce upon graduation. In reality, the distinction between the two degrees is slight, at least when it comes to becoming a medical assistant after graduating.
In order to enter an associate degree program, students must have a high school diploma (or equivalent, such as a GED) and take college placement tests to determine if they meet a certain level of proficiency in academic subjects such as English and math. Once accepted, students will take general education courses in addition to courses related to medical assisting. A typical sampling of medical assisting courses is listed in the chart below:
Coursework focuses on legal and ethical principles and dilemmas likely to be encountered in the medical context. Issues such as consent, doctor-patient relationship and professional liability will be discussed and researched.
The etymology of words used in the medical profession is studied in this class. The origins of word roots, prefixes and suffixes are examined as they apply to medical terminology.
Students study the basic principles of medications and how they work in the human body. Principles of dosing, administration and drug documentation will be reviewed in this course.
This class will go over various office procedures used to accomplished administrative tasks in a medical office. Students will learn how to manage patient information, how the expectations of a healthcare administrative employee differ from that of other settings and other methods by which a medical office can be operated.
Most medical assistants today have received a certificate or diploma from a medical assisting program. Admission requirements are similar to those entering an associate degree medical assisting program. Certificate/diploma programs are popular because they can usually be completed within one year or less. The coursework will be similar to that of the associate program, except there will be fewer, if any, general education classes. Prototypical classes can be found in the below chart:
This class covers how the human body works and is structured. Topics will correspond to each human body system, such as the nervous, skeletal and muscle systems.
Students are introduced to the healthcare insurance industry and learn how to prepare, submit and process insurance claims. The basics of health insurance regulations and procedural coding will be examined.
The laboratory procedures and processes often performed in a medical office are covered in this course. General laboratory techniques, such as specimen collection and diagnostic testing are introduced to students.
Life-long learning and professional development skills are presented to students so that they may achieve their personal and professional goals while practicing as a medical assistant. Students will be trained with career advancement skills such as job interview preparation and resume writing.
Whether it’s completing the medical assisting program, finding a medical assisting job or engaging in a successful medical assisting career, there are specific skills and traits that are important to achieve these goals. Below is a list of skills and traits that are important for hopeful and practicing medical assistants:
Medical assistants must be proficient in the utilization of medical equipment and instruments. Medical assistants must be able to consistently and accurately take a patient’s vital signs as other medical professionals will rely on those measurements in order to plan a patient’s course of treatment.
Medical assistants will utilize their past training and experiences to interpret medical charts and understand medical concepts as they are applied to the real world and actual patients.
Today, most individuals possess a basic understanding of using a computer, but additional computer software skills and experience in medical software, spreadsheet and database programs is essential for working as a medical assistant, especially one that provides administrative support to a medical office.
Prior work experience:
The higher paying medical assisting jobs are highly competitive, so prior work experience is valued in that it will help recently hired medical assistants hit the ground running. It will also improve their educational quality as it helps put what is learned in the classroom into the proper real world context.
Medical assistants work with both patients and medical staff. Medical assistants must be able to effectively communicate with both the lay patient who may not understand a single medical concept, to a veteran medical doctor who speaks primarily in industry shorthand, lingo and acronyms.
Attention to detail:
Medical assistants will be taking and recording patient information, especially measurements of vitals. Medical assistants need to avoid any mistakes, as the patient’s care depends on accurate conveyance of medical data. Additionally, doctor’s offices and insurance companies rely on accurate medical records for processing claims.
Certification is not required to practice as a medical assistant, but is highly recommended for recent medical assisting graduates. Most medical assisting programs specifically train students to take one of the medical assisting certification exams after completing the program.
The medical assistant job generally provides a measure of flexibility, both in scheduling and career choices. Many medical assistants gain experience and financial support in order to pursue more advanced jobs in the medical profession, such as becoming a registered nurse.
There are two primary areas of specialization for medical assistants. First, the medical assistant can primarily work directly with patients doing clinical work. Second, the medical assistant can mostly work with administrative tasks, such as answering the phone and processing medical documents and information. Some schools offer a separate program for medical assistants who focus on administrative work. Sometimes these medical assistants are referred to as medical office assistants.
With respect to medical assistants who focus on clinical work, there can be further subdivision as to areas of specialization. Specializations can include:
Ophthalmic/optometric medical assistant
These medical assistants help optometrists and ophthalmologists provide medical care relating to the eyes.
Podiatric medical assistant
A podiatric medical assistant helps a podiatrist provide medical care relating to the patients’ feet.
Oncologic medical assistant
This type of medical assistant works primarily with cancer patients, especially with in an administrative capacity, in order to handle the medical billing and insurance paperwork.
A great way to learn more about the medical assisting profession is to speak with someone who has practiced as a medical assistant. Below is an interview with Vanessa Moscova, who currently works in the field.
What led to your decision to pursue a career in medical assisting?
I come from a background of nurses and doctors. I wanted the opportunity to get my foot in the door, in order for me to have a better vision of which path I should take, medically. Currently, I have many different interests in the field, such as phlebotomy and medical science. I also have strong intentions of furthering my career in natural medicine.
What is your educational background, and how does it apply to your current job?
I studied health and medicine at the Sanford Brown Institute, located in Iselin, NJ. It was an intensive, ABHES accredited 900-hour course, compromised of a theoretical and practical application of essential medical assistant skills including medical terminology, anatomy and physiology. I also studied various clinical skills, lab procedures, along with administrative duties and health insurance processing. This knowledge helped me develop and transfer my skills accordingly and efficiently for each patient and medical practice.
What does your day-to-day work entail?
Each day I am freshly motivated to follow through each task, while possessing a positive attitude and great communication skills with patients and staff team. During my work hours, I like to keep busy. In this specific field, there are always things to do. Such as bringing in patients to go over their medical history. During that time I’d be checking their vitals, as well as obtaining their chief complaint. Then, the doctor is ready to see the patient, and will instruct me to assist him with any tasks or clinical procedures, which can vary from suture removal to ear irrigation, depending on what the patient is there for. I may have to draw blood from a patient, if necessary. When I am not with the doctor or patient, I will be in the lab checking that all lab forms are filled out properly and also that they match each specimen. You will also see me answering phone calls and calling in and faxing patients’ medications to various nearby pharmacies. Making sure that each room is clean and organized is a very important task throughout the day, as well as checking and updating the practices inventory for medical supplies.
Anything else you might want to say about medical assisting?
My advice to all future medical assistants is to maintain a positive attitude and stay focused. As you know, it is a field of intense competition, so it is important to stand out from the rest of the potential candidates. Show that you are ready to enhance yourself and the company, by showing interest in learning, and prove that you are obtaining the information efficiently for the job.
Medical assistants work in a variety of settings, including healthcare clinics, hospitals, nursing homes and outpatient facilities. Depending on where they are employed, medical assistants can work in a more clinical capacity, administrative capacity or both.
In a clinical capacity, the medical assistant’s day-to-day tasks will align with the work done by someone like Ms. Moscova, working directly with patients with more “hands on” job duties. This is sometimes called working in the “back office.” If a medical assistant works in an administrative capacity, they will focus on working the front desk, including patient intake, pulling medical documents, filling out forms and answering the phone. This is sometimes referred to as “front office” work. Depending on the office, medical assistants will usually work in a “front office” or “back office” capacity. Sometimes they can work in both areas, either as a part of their formal job duties or when covering for another medical assistant who may be out of the office.
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.
Median Salary: $29,370
Median Hourly: $14.12
Est. Growth: 29%
No. Employed: 553,140
Minimum Education: Postsecondary non-degree award
Medical Equipment Preparers
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.
Median Salary: $30,820
Median Hourly: $14.82
Est. Growth: 20.3%
No. Employed: 50,230
Minimum Education: High School Diploma
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.
Median Salary: $31,350
Median Hourly: $15.07
Est. Growth: 36%
No. Employed: 509,640
Minimum Education: High School Diploma
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.
Median Salary: $34,020
Median Hourly: $16.36
Est. Growth: 7.6%
No. Employed: 74,810
Minimum Education: Postsecondary non-degree award
Vanessa Moscova offers the following piece of advice for
those about to enter the medical profession as a medical assistant: “If you do not know, ask. ALWAYS ASK, FIRST. I would also say, through experience, that it is always best to have a pocket-sized notepad to keep track of any relevant information or notes for yourself about the job. Lastly, I would suggest that you dive into it. Be confident and know that you can be great at what you were trained to do.”