How to Get the Credentials to Become an Integral Part of a Medical Staff
By providing clinical and administrative support, medical assistants form the backbone of a medical office – and many medical offices realize the value in these highly-trained personnel. Expert Contributor
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for medical assistant will increase 23 percent from 2014 to 2024. To take full advantage of this expected growth, it is recommended that medical assistants become certified.
State requirements for medical assisting certification vary, but generally speaking, an individual will need to graduate from an accredited medical assisting program and pass an exam to become certified.
Some certifications will waive the graduation requirement, but only if the degree is substituted with real-world medical assisting experience. The following guide will help explain the medical assisting certification process and why it's so important
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5 Reasons Medical Assistants Should Become Certified
There are several benefits for becoming a certified medical assistant, including better marketability and higher pay. Here are five good reasons why it pays to get that certification.
According to the BLS, employers prefer to hire medical assistants who have earned certification. In order to stand out in a competitive job market, certification can offer an advantage; it proves motivation and commitment to the medical assisting career.
Medical assisting programs are extremely prevalent and offered at hundreds of educational institutions. Many employers do not have time or ability to learn how rigorous or complete a medical assisting program might be. Certification can help reassure employers that the medical assistant learned a certain set of skills and information and was able to prove that to an unbiased third party organization.
According to Payscale, the median salary for certified medical assistants is slightly higher than that of those who did not choose certification. One contributing factor to higher pay is simple supply and demand. There are more non-certified medical assistants than certified medical assistants.
According to the American Association of Medical Assistants, healthcare providers can reduce their risk of a successful malpractice lawsuit by using only certified medical assistants. Furthermore, the use of certified medical assistants can help employers meet certain laws and regulations. This is because certain legal components of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Clinical Laboratory Improvements Act can be complied with by using a certified medical assistant over a non-certified one.
Due to the changing medical care landscape in the United States, more and more medical care is being provided by managed care providers (MCP). MCPs believe that certified medical professionals, including medical assistants, provide more cost effective medical care. Because of this, medical assistants will need to be certified to increase the chances of getting hired and retained.
Medical Assistant Certification at a Glance
|Certified Medical Assistant CMA||Registered Medical Assistant RMA||National Certified Medical Assistant NCMA||Certified Clinical Medical Assistant CCMA||Certified Medical Administrative Assistant CMAA|
|*Eligibility & Requirements||Graduation from an accredited medical assisting program, complete practicum of at least 160 hours||Currently in or graduated from an accredited medical assisting program||Currently in or graduated from an NCCT (authorized) medical assisting program or experience||Successfully completed a clinical medical assisting program within the last five years||Successfully completed a medical administrative assisting program within the last five years.|
|Exam Content||200 questions||210 questions||150 questions||200 questions||100 questions|
|Recertification Requirements||Every 60 months||Every 3 years||Every year||Every 2 years||Every 2 years|
*Please check specific certifying body websites for complete lists.
Medical Assistant Certifications In-Depth
To become a certified medical assistant, it’s important to first understand eligibility requirements, then figure out which certification is best for a particular line of work. There are many certifications to choose from, but there are only five that are widely recognized and almost unanimously recommended. These five are also accredited by the Institute for Credentialing Excellence.
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)
Certifying Body: American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
Benefits of CMA Certification
- Employers can verify CMA (AAMA) certification status on the AAMA website.
- The CMA certification limits eligibility to candidates who have completed a postsecondary, accredited medical assisting academic program.
- The Certifying Board of the AAMA uses the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) as the consultant for its certification examination.
- The exam is offered at professional testing centers. These centers provide secure, reliable exam delivery.
- CMAs become members and have access to a variety of tools, continuing education opportunities, and information available via the AAMA.
- Graduate from a medical assisting programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
- Complete a practicum (onsite work experience).
Psychology Communication Professional Medical Law/Regulatory Medical Ethics Risk Management, Quality Assurance and Safety Medical Terminology
Medical Reception Patient Navigator/Advocate Medical Business Practices Establish Patient Medical Records Scheduling Appointments Medical Practice Finances
Anatomy & Physiology Infection Control Patient Intake, Care Documentation Patient Prep & Assisting Provider Nutrition Collection & Processing of Specimens Diagnostic Testing Pharmacology Emergency Management & Basic First Aid
Exam Bottom Line: 200 questions, 180 scored and 20 pretest | Four 40-minute segments
Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)
Certifying Body: American Medical Technologists (AMT)
Benefits of RMA Certification
- Employers and anyone else can verify that medical assistant candidates possess a certain level of knowledge and medical understanding and are dedicated to maintaining their medical assistant knowledge.
- The RMA certification is nationally and internationally recognized.
- RMA certification eligibility can be met through medical assisting work experience, not just by graduating from an accredited medical assisting program.
- Those with RMA certification will be a part of the AMT professional network of medical professionals.
- AMT exams are fully accredited by the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCAA).
- Graduate from a medical assisting program that is accredited or that is contained within an accredited school within the last four years, or
- Graduate from a formal medical services training program of the United States Armed Forces within the last four years, or
- Within the last seven years, complete at least five years of full-time medical assisting experience, with no more than two years working as an instructor, or
- Possess at least five years of teaching experience at an accredited medical assisting program, or
- Possess at least one year of teaching experience at an accredited medical assisting program and at least three years of full-time clinical experience in a healthcare setting that exceeds or is the equivalent of the medical assisting scope of practice, or
- Pass another AMT approved agency medical assisting examination and be considered otherwise eligible to take the RMA exam.
Anatomy and Physiology Medical Terminology Human Relations Medical Law Medical Ethics Patient Education
Insurance Financial Bookkeeping Medical Receptionist/Secretarial/Clerical
Asepsis Sterilization Vital Signs Physical Examinations Clinical Pharmacology Minor Surgery Therapeutic Modalities Laboratory Procedures Electrocardiography First Aid and Emergency Response
Exam Bottom Line: 210 questions and three hours to complete the exam
National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)
Certifying Body: National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)
Benefits of NCMA Certification
- NCMA certification assures others that the medical assistant possess a requisite level of medical assisting knowledge.
- The NCMA exam is offered only at approved testing centers that meet certain facility and test security requirements.
- Becoming NCMA certified can be cheaper than other medical assisting certifications.
- The NCMA certification is recognized nationally.
- Excellent customer service is in place to help answer questions about the medical assisting certification process.
- Is a current student in a medical assisting program located in an NCCT school, or
- Graduated from a medical assisting program located in an NCCT school within the past five years, or
- Has at least two years of full-time medical assisting experience within the last five years, or
- Within the last five years, has completed a medical assisting training or equivalent program while in US military service.
- Pharmacology, 13 questions
- Medical Procedures, 52 questions
- Infection, Exposure Control and Safety Phlebotomy Patient Care
- ECG and Other Diagnostic Tests, 23 questions
- Other Diagnostic Tests ECG Placement Techniques, Recording, and Interpretation ECG Troubleshooting and Maintenance
- General Office Procedures, 39 questions
- Communication Medical office Computer Applications Scheduling Medical Records
- Medical Office General Management, 8 questions
- Office Financial Management, Billing, Insurance, 7 questions
- Law and Ethics, 8 questions
Exam Bottom Line: 165 questions, 150 scored and 15 pretest, and three hours to complete the exam
Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)
Certifying Body: National Healthcareer Association (NHA)
Benefits of CCMA Certification
- CCMA exam may be offered at your medical assisting school location.
- Test results available within two days of taking the exam.
- CCMA exam takers will have access to professional development and job board resources.
- Employers can verify CCMA certification right on the NHA website.
- Graduate from a clinical medical assisting program within the last five years.
- Possess a high school diploma or GED.
- Patient Care, 70 questions
- General Patient Care Patient Care and Preparation Related to Phlebotomy and EKG
- Communication, 15 questions
- Medical Reception Patient Navigator/Advocate Medical Business Practices Establish Patient Medical Records Scheduling Appointments Medical Practice Finances
- Office Administration, 18 questions
- Medical Law and Ethics, 10 questions
- Phlebotomy, 25 questions
- Collections Processing
- EKG Monitoring, 12 questions
Exam Bottom Line: 170 questions, 150 scored and 20 pretest, and two hours and 50 minutes to complete.
Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)
Certifying Body: National Healthcareer Association (NHA)
Benefits of CMAA Certification
- CMAA exam may be offered at your medical assisting school location.
- Test results available within two days of taking the exam.
- CMAA exam takers will have access to professional development and job board resources.
- Employers can verify CMAA certification right on the NHA website.
- Successfully completed a medical administrative assisting program within the last five years.
- Possess a high school diploma or GED.
- Scheduling, 19 questions
- Evaluate different types of patient scheduling Determine scheduling needs of the facility, as well as for new and established patients Follow protocol for no-show, missed, cancelled, or follow-up appointments Arrange for diagnostic testing and procedures Confirm future appointments
- Patient Intake, 18 questions
- Confirm demographic information with patient Verify insurance information Ensure forms are updated or completed Prepare encounter form Prepare daily charts
- Office Logistics, 12 questions
- File medical records Perform financial procedures Evaluate mail deliveries
- Compliance, 16 questions
- Follow HIPAA guidelines Follow OSHA guidelines Follow Center for Medical/Medicaid Services guidelines
- Patient Education, 11 questions
- Explain the Patients’ Bill of Rights Explain the patients’ insurance responsibilities Explain pre- and post-instructions for testing and procedures
- General Office Policies and Procedures, 15 questions
- Perform office opening and closing procedures Greet patients upon arrival Apply telephone etiquette Create correspondence Demonstrate basic computer skills
- Basic Medical Terminology, 19 questions
- Use medical terminology to communicate with patients and physicians Recognize abbreviations and acronyms used to complete administrative duties Use word parts to define medical terminology
Exam Bottom Line: 130 questions, 110 scored and 20 pretest, and two hours and 10 minutes to complete.
Specialty Certifications for Medical Assistants
Some medical assistants work in highly specialized areas. The two most common areas of specialization for MAs are ophthalmology (medical care of the eyes) and podiatry (medical care of the feet). Medical assistants who work in these areas and want proof of their specialized skills may choose to obtain specialty certification.
Certified Paraoptometric (CPO)
A CPO performs a wide variety of administrative tasks in an eye care clinic. CPOs also help patients select and adjust eyewear. To obtain CPO certification through the American Optometric Association, applicants must have a high school diploma or the equivalent as well as a minimum of six months of experience. Candidates must also pass an exam.
Certified Paraoptometric Assistant (CPOA)
CPOAs work with eye doctors in eye clinics. They can take patient histories, measure patients’ vision, screen patients for glaucoma, check patients’ blood pressure and perform other tasks. CPOAs also help patients with eyeglasses and contact lenses and have specialized knowledge of the eye. To become certified as a CPOA through the American Optometric Association, applicants must be a graduate of or student in an approved optometric assistant program, have worked as a CPO for at least 6 months, or have five or more years’ experience working in eye care. Applicants also have to pass an exam.
Podiatric Medical Assistant, Certified (PMAC)
Certified podiatric medical assistants work closely with podiatrists, or foot doctors. They can expose and develop x-rays or make castings and molds of patients’ feet to help the doctors design appropriate treatments. They may also help physicians during surgery. The American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants (ASPMA) offers certification to MAs who are members of ASPMA, work in podiatric medical clinics and have passed an exam.
Prices and prerequisites for eligibility may change for organizations such as those listed above, so it's wise to research professional certification or registration requirements before beginning a medical assistant program.
From the Expert
Yolanda Patterson, BSN, MBA, is the director of the Medical Assistant and Medical Office Administration programs at the Concorde Career Institute in Tampa, Florida.
What is the best thing students can do on their own to prepare for taking the certification examination?
Paying close attention in class and in the clinical setting translates into great study opportunities outside of class. By reviewing their class notes and drawing on the clinical experiences they had, students will gain the connective information that will assist them in theory-based learning as well as clinically, for their certification exam. Most certification organizations also provide resource tools that students should leverage to prepare them. These resources are normally available once the registration process has been completed.
How can a student choose which certification is best?
History has shown that students decide on which certification is best based upon their specific post-graduation interests. This decision is normally based on their externship experience. Many students choose the NCMA option, which gives them a broader spectrum. I have also had students choose a more specific certification such as Phlebotomy Technician Certification (CPT). All in all, a student should choose an area that most interests them as this tends to be the most rewarding career path.
What areas do students tend to struggle with the most when preparing for the exam?
Students tend to struggle the most with theory-based questions. We encourage them to answer the questions and not to get caught up in trying to analyze what a question “could” possibly mean by adding their own hypothetical theories to their response.
Any advice you might offer to students who are preparing to become a medical assistant?
At Concorde, we tell our medical assisting program students to know their medical terminology, reflect on the passion and empathy needed to succeed in the health care field, embrace patient education, and you will master the rest throughout the program and your career. We also tell them to simply believe that all things are possible.
Which Medical Assisting Certification is Right for You?
- Practical Considerations Some of the most important differences between the five major medical assisting certifications may be practical or financial. For example, some certifications are cheaper, may offer exams at more convenient test locations (like the medical assisting school) or may offer more lenient test-taking procedures. Regardless of these points, the single biggest factor to consider is whether a given certification is recognized, by either potential employers or the state in which applicants hope to work.
- Employer Preference Some employers have explicit medical assisting certifications that they prefer. If a medical assistant has post-graduate plans at a particular employer, they should check to see which certifications are preferred or exclusively recognized.
- State Requirements Employers aren’t the only ones with preferences for certain medical assisting certifications. Many states, even those that don’t require certification for medical assistants, may only recognize a few particular certifications. If a medical assistant intends to work in a certain state or states, they should confirm which certifications that state recognizes. In states that require licensing, they may only accept certain certifications as a prerequisite to the medical assisting license.
- Certification Focus Another difference is what the certification examination focuses on. For example, the CMAA is primarily focused on administrative tasks. If a medical assistant would like to focus on the front office or administrative side of medical assisting, this certification might be ideal. However, if a medical assisting candidate prefers the back office or clinical medical assisting work, then this certification may not be the best choice.
- Recognition A final thing to consider: some certifications are more widely recognized because they have been around longer. For example, the CMA and RMA are some of the most recognized certifications; they’ve been around for decades.
Becoming a Certified Medical Assistant: Steps
- Attend an accredited medical assisting program.
- In order to sit for most medical assisting certification exams, students should be in the process of graduating, or have graduated from an accredited or approved medical assisting program. As long as a student graduates from a medical assisting program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), they should eligible for practically all certification exams.
- Confirm certification exam eligibility.
- Even though a large number of certification applicants will meet the eligibility criteria by attending an accredited or approved medical assisting program, some certification exams have other ways to become eligible, such as having a certain amount of medical assisting experience or having received training in the US military. Before applying to take the exam and paying the necessary fees, double check to ensure eligibility.
- Submit the application and choose a test date.
- Most certification exam applications and any other materials can be submitted online. This is encouraged, as most online applications move through the system much faster than paper applications do. Scheduling the exam can also be done online. Be sure to choose a date that will be free from potential distractions and will give ample time to study for the exam.
- Study for the exam.
- Studying is definitely a necessity; it allows for review of material and builds confidence. Passing the first time is important, because even though the test can be taken a second time, there is usually a waiting period. Avoid the hassle of waiting to retake the exam or stressing out over failing a second time by doing what it takes to pass the first time. Many certification organizations will have study materials available to assist in exam preparation.
- Take and pass the exam.
- It sounds simple, but arriving late or not studying enough can derail any plans of passing during the first exam attempt. Get a good night’s sleep, leave extra early and everything else possible to be exam-ready on test day.
- Keep up with recertification.
- Each organization has its own recertification timeline requirement, usually every year or every few years. Continuing education classes may also be necessary to maintain certification. Once certification is obtained, closely follow the recertification schedule and take the necessary steps to maintain the certification.
Medical Assistant Certification Resources
The AAMA provides an exam content outline and practice exam questions to help with study for the CMA exam.
An outline offered by the NHA that discusses which topics will be on the CCMA certification exam.
An outline offered by the AAMA that details which topics will be on the CMA certification exam.
Details on the various topics that will be on the CMAA certification exam.
An outline offered by the NCCT that discusses the topics on the NCMA certification exam.
Free online flashcards to help study terminology and concepts for the CMAA exam.
Provides information about the RMA certification exam, including a content outline explaining topics on the exam, as well as sample exam questions.
Free online flashcards created by users to help study definitions for the CCMA exam.
Union Test Prep provides a free practice test and flash cards to help students study for the NCMA exam.
The AAMA offers the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) designation, which is one of the most widely recognized medical assisting certifications.
The AMT offers several healthcare-related certifications, including the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA), one of the most well-known and accepted medical assisting certifications.
The NAHP is a relative newcomer to the medical assisting certifying group of organizations. In addition to offering the Nationally Registered Certified Medical Assistant designation for medical assistants, the NAHP also offers certifications for other medical professionals.
The NCCT supports and administers the National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) certification.
The NHA offers two generally accepted medical assisting certifications - the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) and the Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA).
A major accrediting organization for health education programs, including medical assisting.
A non-profit professional organization with the goal of promoting the status and interests of medical assistants.
A professional organization with the purpose of facilitating the education of medical assistants who work in the field of podiatry.
The CAAHEP is one of the key organizations that accredits medical assistant programs.
ICE helps develop accreditation standards for many areas, including medical assisting.