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Medical assistants play an essential role in healthcare. As part of a medical team, these versatile professionals work with nurses, doctors, and other support professionals to ensure that medical offices and facilities run smoothly and that patients receive excellent care.
Schools offer two main educational paths to medical assistant careers: a certificate/diploma or an associate degree in medical assisting. Vocational schools, community colleges, and online colleges and universities all offer medical assistant training.
The following guide offers information and resources to help you find the right medical assisting program. We cover certification requirements, salary and job growth, training, and career advancement.
Career Outlook for Medical Assisting
Medical assistants enjoy promising job prospects. As of 2019, 725,200 medical assistants worked in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 19% job growth rate for medical assistants from 2019-2029 — much faster than the 4% national average for all occupations.
A medical assistant certificate or associate degree meets the educational requirements to land an entry-level position in the industry. Certificate and associate programs generally take less time to complete and cost less than a bachelor's degree. These benefits can make a medical assistant degree an excellent choice for students who cannot commit to a longer and costlier program.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 19% job growth rate for medical assistants from 2019-2029 — much faster than the 4% national average for all occupations.
With professional experience and postgraduate certification, medical assistants can climb the career ladder to more advanced roles. Earning a certification in specialties such as cardiology, neurology, or oncology can also help speed up career progression. In the following section, we look at salary expectations for different career levels and job locations.
Medical Assistant Salaries
As of 2020, the BLS reported median earnings of $35,850 per year or $17.23 per hour for medical assistants. However, many factors can affect the potential salary of professionals in this field, such as experience level, certification, and job location.
As of 2020, the BLS reported median earnings of $35,850 per year or $17.23 per hour for medical assistants.
The average pay for medical assistants at different career levels ranges from $13.75-$17.85 per hour. Certification can boost salary potential. The salary of experienced certified medical assistants averages $18.04 per hour as of 2021. The tables below provide salary figures for different experience levels for medical assistants and certified medical assistants.
Job location can also impact earning potential. According to the BLS, the average annual salary of medical assistants ranges from $33,700 in Texas to $46,610 in Alaska as of 2020. The interactive map below shows how medical assistant salaries vary by state.
Average Salary of Medical Assistants and Certified Medical Assistants by Experience, 2021
|Experience||Average Salary of Medical Assistants||Average Salary of Certified Medical Assistants|
|Medical Assistant||Medical Secetary||Medical Office Admin/Assistant||Physician Assistant|
|Medical assistants receive training to perform routine administrative duties and assist physicians with basic clinical tasks.||Medical secretaries perform secretarial duties such as answering and directing calls, greeting patients, maintaining medical records, and ordering supplies.||These professionals perform back-office duties such as scheduling appointments, updating calendars, maintaining databases and files, and arranging staff meetings.||Physician assistants perform more advanced patient-oriented tasks such as examining, diagnosing, and treating patients. They work under the supervision of physicians.|
|Minimum education required: Formal training, postsecondary certificate or diploma||Minimum education required: High school diploma||Minimum education required: High school diploma||Minimum education required: Master’s degree|
Medical Assistant Program Q & A
If you find a medical office that offers on-the-job training, you could begin working as a medical assistant in a few months. This option, however, is becoming less common and may apply only to those already working in a closely related field. A certificate program typically takes one year, while an associate degree in medical assisting takes about two years.
A medical assistant has completed the required coursework or received on-the-job training to function as a medical assistant. A certified or registered medical assistant holds certification or registration from a professional organization such as the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) or the American Registry of Medical Assistants (ARMA).
Certification and registration provide validation of a medical assistant's skills and training. Although no federal or state government currently requires such designations, most employers prefer or require certification and/or registration through a state or national agency.
To become a certified medical assistant (CMA), you must be a graduate of an accredited medical assisting program. You must also pass a certification exam.
The ARMA grants registration to medical assistants in three categories:
- Recommended by a representative of an accredited, affiliated medical assistant school.
- Recommended by a physician employer after one year of on-the-job experience after graduation from an accredited but nonaffiliated school.
- Recommended by a physician employer after completing three years of on-the-job training.
The ARMA does not require an exam for registration, but other organizations may require it.
Medical assisting students take classes in medical terminology, medical law, bioethics, and professionalism in healthcare. Other topics include human anatomy and physiology, office management, medical coding and insurance, pharmacology, healthcare computing, and laboratory procedures.
Students pursuing an associate degree in medical assisting take similar courses, along with general studies courses in English, mathematics, and humanities.
Although schools offer online programs, you cannot complete all requirements entirely online. Because medical assistants perform clinical tasks, they must gain real-world clinical experience through an externship or practicum.
It's possible to complete most of the coursework online, but you will still need to learn the necessary clinical skills in a healthcare facility or hospital. Most online medical assisting programs help students connect with nearby healthcare facilities so they can conveniently complete the clinical portion of their education.
While the exact technical requirements vary from school to school, in general, you will need a computer with adequate memory, a fast processor, audio and video capabilities, an up-to-date web browser, and a reliable high-speed internet connection.
You may need to install and use certain software. Some schools, for instance, require students to use Microsoft Office or Open Office.
You may also need certain browser plug-ins, such as Adobe Acrobat and Quicktime. Contact your school to determine what equipment and technology you will need to successfully complete your online program.
Look for an accredited program. Accreditation signifies that the program meets certain minimum standards established by professionals in the field. Proper accreditation is a good indicator of quality.
To find an accredited medical assistant program, search the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs directory. You can search for programs in your home state, throughout the country, or online.
Find a program with a good reputation and a good job placement rate. The placement rate indicates how many of the program's graduates got hired as medical assistants. Many medical assisting schools now publish this information on their websites.
Program costs vary. Medical assistants who learn on the job may be paid for the time they spend learning. However, it is more common to enter the field after completing a certificate or associate program.
In general, a certificate program costs less than an associate program. It is wise to shop around, as the cost of a medical assistant certificate program or associate degree typically ranges from $3,500-$15,000.
Grants, loans, and scholarships are available to eligible individuals who want to pursue medical assistant education. Grants do not need to be repaid and are often awarded based on financial need. Loans must be paid back with interest.
Scholarships do not need to be repaid. Most scholarships are awarded based on merit, but some also consider financial need.
To see if you are eligible for financial aid, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can do so online at fafsa.ed.gov.
The financial aid office at your chosen school can guide you through the process, answer questions, and point you toward relevant grants and scholarships. It is also a good idea to conduct your own research and apply for as many scholarships as you can.
Not necessarily. Some medical assistants learn through on-the-job training. However, formal education through a medical assisting certificate, diploma, or associate program is the most common path to a medical assistant career.
Some medical assistants choose to take a certification exam after graduating from an accredited program. This exam is not required, and you may be able to find employment without becoming certified. Certification may increase your employment opportunities, however, as some physicians prefer to hire CMAs.
Featured Image: Morsa Images / DigitalVision / Getty Images
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