The Next Step: Career Advancement for Medical Assistants

The Training, Education & Skills Required to Move to Advanced Medical Careers
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Medical assistants have enormous career potential within the field of medical assisting. They can choose to specialize in almost any area of medicine, assisting physicians and other healthcare personnel in clinics, hospitals, private offices and more. But there is also promising opportunity for career advancement beyond medical assisting. In fact, some medical assistants come to see the expertise and knowledge they earn during their work as stepping stones to other healthcare careers. This guide focuses on the possibilities for medical assistants, both within their chosen profession and other career paths.

Timeline for Pursuing & Advancing
a Medical Assistant Career

Though career advancement often happens on a very personal timeline, this rough guideline offers an idea of what students may want to consider as they train for medical assisting careers and move up the career ladder.

Attend a medical assisting training program

Start out with a program from an accredited institution. Schools that offer medical assisting programs include community colleges, vocational schools, and universities. Those who want to keep their options wide open may want to choose the associate degree program in medical assisting. Students should receive clinical training while attending a program.

Get certified

Certifications are available from several agencies, including the American Association of Medical Assistants. Now that the training is complete, certification is practically a must. In some programs, students are expected to sit for a certification exam around the time they graduate. Others may have the option to wait a few months. Either way, this is the time to hit the books hard and pass the test with flying colors.

Learn more about medical assistant certification
Get experience

Seek out employment and begin working in a medical office. If you’ve attended a medical assisting program, find out if your school offers help with job search and placement. During this time, learn as much as you can, and offer to take on increasing responsibility. Gain a deeper understanding of the medical field, and take note of the parts of your job that you like and excel in.

Delve into specializations

Once medical assistants have some general experience under their belt, they may want to look at specializations in ob-gyn, ophthalmology or podiatry. Having numerous certifications and specialized training certificates can broaden the medical horizons, as well as look fantastic on a resume.

Consider more education or training

What would it take to become a nurse? Would any work done towards a medical assistant education be applied to a nursing degree? Would you be able to still work as a medical assistant while attending nursing school? This is the time to have these questions answered. When it’s time for a change, start looking into the options. Further education and training might yield a different career in healthcare, perhaps even one that will advance quickly, because the fundamentals are already in place.

Take the plunge

Ready for more education? Find out what it would take to use that associate degree as the basis for the bachelor’s degree program. There are most likely basic courses you can apply to another related program, particularly courses in math, science or medical terminology. Choose an area of healthcare that truly captures your interest, and be prepared to work hard to meet your goals.

5 Benefits of Medical Assistant Career Advancement

Medical assisting is a solid career choice in a field expected to grow at an astounding 23 percent through 2024. There should be no shortage of jobs for those looking to work in this career. But what do medical assistants have to gain by advancing their careers? There are several reasons, but the number one reason, not surprisingly is to increase earnings.

Higher Pay
1

As with most careers, the more advanced the work, the higher the pay. Medical assistants who advance their career through specialized expertise, additional classes and more targeted training may be more likely to get that coveted pay raise.

Better Job Security
2

One of the woes of staying in an entry-level job while not increasing skills is that workers may be more likely to be downsized or replaced. But those who have made a point of advancing their career through greater knowledge and skills can become quite valuable to employers, who may then make a point of keeping them on the payroll.

Broader Skill Set
3

Learning new skills isn’t just about job security and higher pay – it’s about patient satisfaction, and that translates into kudos from employers and coworkers. That broader skill set can hold a medical assistant in good stead as they look into other careers in healthcare. For instance, someone who wants to be a nurse can learn a great deal of hands-on skills while working as a medical assistant.

More Prestige
4

Turning to specialized training to advance medical assistant careers can mean that in the end, the person who has the widest variety of training is more in-demand. The prestige that comes from being able to handle various patient populations can change an entry-level medical assistant into a must-hire advanced candidate.

Wider Career Options
5

Medical assistant careers aren’t limited to physician’s offices or hospitals. Those who have significant training in a particular field can move into more challenging careers, such as office management, or clinics that support a particular population or focus on a particular illness or medical issue.

How to Advance a Medical Assistant Career

At first blush, it might seem that working as a medical assistant could leave you stuck in that role forever. But it is possible to broaden the horizons, especially with more education, more training, and specialization in the things that interest you. For instance, a medical assistant can move into team leadership or supervisory positions, or can opt to do back to school to move into other careers in the medical field. The following steps can help make it all a reality.

1 Look for training options

There are likely several opportunities to train in other areas, sometimes right there in the organization that currently employs you. Consider training sessions in everything from how to spot drug use or depression to CPR classes and refresher courses for billing and coding.

2 Develop professional skills

When given the opportunity to do something new, take it! A new machine in the office is cause for learning how to work it; a new billing system offers an opportunity to spread your wings.

3 Become a teacher

Reach out to teach others what you know. Get in touch with a local vocational or community college and offer your service as an adjunct faculty. Become the go-to person in your organization for training new medical assistants from their very first day.

4 Specialize

Some clinical fields require very specific knowledge and expertise. If you are okay with moving around every few years, consider moving from one office to another and broadening your skill set through specializations. Clinical fields that might catch your attention include emergency medicine, cardiology, ophthalmology, pediatrics or podiatry.

5 Get certified

Though it seems like a given, many medical assistants choose not to become certified simply because it is not required. That means that those who obtain certification might have better options for employment and might stand out from the pack of applicants.

6 Dive into a foreign language

A medical assistant is often the first person a new patient sees. What if that patient doesn’t speak English? Being able to speak a foreign language heightens the opportunities to show off your skills, make patients feel more comfortable, and make life easier for the physicians and nurses who don’t know the language.

7 Get additional education

So you’re trained and certified. Now what? Continue to hone your skills while you consider getting further education. Moving into another area of healthcare might be easier thank you think. For instance, if you have already earned an associate degree, it’s a short leap to the bachelor’s – which might enable to you to become a registered nurse, go into administration, and so much more.

Careers for Advancing in the Medical Field

Those who choose to spread their wings and move into other areas of the medical field can do so with medical assisting as a firm foundation. The following jobs are options for those who want to enhance or further their medical assisting careers.

Medical & Health Services Manager

Annual Salary (2014): $92,810
Training, education or experience requirements: Moving into the job typically requires a bachelor’s degree
Job requirements: While a bachelor’s degree is typically the minimum to enter healthcare management and administration, master’s degrees are becoming increasingly popular; many employers now require the graduate degree. Many begin their career path with experience in a healthcare office or in a more clinical role.

Though more work in hospitals, some might choose to work in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. The job includes improving efficiency and quality of healthcare, keeping the facility up-to-date and code compliant, integrating new technologies, managing finances and staff, and overseeing budgets and purchases.

Medical Records & Health Information Technicians

Annual Salary (2014): $35,900
Training, education or experience requirements: Must earn certification; some employers require an associate degree
Job requirements: Certifications include Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) or Certified Tumor Registrar (CTR), among others. Certification might require graduation from an accredited program, passing an exam, or both. In states or facilities where licensure is required, a graduation from a formal education program and the CTR registration is often required.

38% work in hospitals, while 21% work in offices of physicians. Job duties include reviewing and organizing patient records, tracking patient outcomes, using electronic health record programs, using classification software, and maintaining confidentiality of patient records.

Surgical Technologist

Annual Salary (2014): $43,350
Training, education or experience requirements: Accredited programs take anywhere from a few months to two years
Job requirements: Employers prefer those who have earned their postsecondary award or associate degree; some are required to earn certifications, such as the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) or Tech in Surgery – Certified (NCCT). Some jobs also require certification in basic life support and CPR.

The vast majority work in hospitals or outpatient care centers. Duties include preparing operating rooms, sterilizing equipment, preparing patients for surgery, assisting during surgery, keeping count of supplies, and maintaining a sterile environment.

Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist

Annual Salary (2014): $59,430
Training, education or experience requirements: Technologists need a bachelor’s degree
Job requirements: A bachelor’s degree in laboratory technology or life sciences is required for entry-level work. Some states require licensure; in this case, certification is required. Certification can be general or specific, and requires completion of an accredited program and passing an exam.

The majority work in hospitals or diagnostic laboratories. Job duties include analyzing bodily fluids, studying blood samples for potential uses, using a variety of equipment to perform tests, log data appropriately, and discuss results with the appropriate medical personnel.

Licensed Practical or Licensed Vocational Nurse

Annual Salary (2014): $42,490
Training, education or experience requirements: Graduation from an approved nursing program is required, as well as passing the NCLEX-PN
Job requirements: LPNs and LVNs must complete an approved nursing program, which typically takes one year. They must also pass the NCLEX-PN. Passing this exam is required to become licensed in any state.

LPNs and LVNs are found in all areas of healthcare, including offices, outpatient centers, hospitals, nursing homes and more. They provide direct patient care under the supervision of registered nurses, including checking vital signs, providing for basic patient comfort, reporting status to nurses or doctors, and keeping track of information in the patient’s chart.

Registered Nurse

Annual Salary (2014): $66,640
Training, education or experience requirements: Though an associate degree or diploma might be suitable for registered nurses, a bachelor’s degree requirement is becoming more widespread
Job requirements: Most incoming registered nurses will be required to hold a bachelor’s degree, especially if they intend to work in hospitals. They must become licensed by the state in which they intend to work; this requires graduation from an accredited program and passing the NCLEX-RN.

The vast majority of registered nurses work in hospitals. The work might include monitoring patients, administering medications, planning for patient care, collaborating with other healthcare professionals, operating and monitoring medical equipment, and teaching patients and their families what to expect during and after treatment.

Medical Assistants Moving Up: A New Opportunity in Nursing

Some medical assistants enjoy helping patients so much that they decide to transition to a career in nursing. A nurse goes beyond the basic duties of a medical assistant (vitals and injections) and treats patients on a much deeper level. Nurses provide, coordinate and monitor patient care, recommend medication, educate patients and families, and give emotional support when needed. In essence, they engage with patients in more varied and advanced ways than medical assistants, and play a more central role in the health care process. For MA’s with drive, nursing is a great next step.

Types of Nurses

The nursing field encompasses a variety of individual professions. While they all share certain characteristics – working with patients, medication and families – the depth of the work, education and experience involved can vary significantly.

Licensed practical nurses (LPN)

perform clinical functions such as monitoring vital signs (heart rate, oxygen levels, blood sugar) and assessing patients for status changes. In some states, LPNs also care for wounds, provide intravenous treatments and other more advanced duties. To become an LPN, a medical assistant must pass a one-year training program or earn an associate degree from a community college, and then pass the required NCLEX-PN exam.

Registered nurses (RN)

RNs represent the cornerstone of the nursing field. They perform more advanced duties than LPNs and work more closely with physicians to care for patients both in the short- and the long-term. For example, RNs administer medications, operate complex medical equipment and work with patients and families on after care. Some RNs also specialize in a particular type of nursing, including geriatric nursing, pediatric nursing or neonatal nursing.

Becoming a registered nurse takes a bit more education and training that what’s required for an LPN. RNs usually graduate from a two- to three- year associate degree in nursing (ADN) program or earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Aspiring RNs must then sit for and pass the NCLX-RN exam, which is required to obtain a license in all states.

Nurse Practitioners (NP)

NPs sit at the top of the nursing ladder. They perform the most complex nursing functions, such as prescribing medication to patients. Nearly all NPs start out as RNs and then progress in their careers through a Master of Science of Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). NPs need to hold state licensing and certification, as well. Becoming a nurse practitioner can take at least six years.

Nursing In-Depth: Second-Level Care

The role of a nurse goes beyond the first line of patient care. Nurses also promote health and assist patients in meeting their personal goals for well-being. When caring for a patient with a burn, for instance, the nurse will administer medications and perform dressing changes, but also facilitate healing via excellent skin care and teaching the patient and family how to avoid infection.

Nurses also assess family and home situations to ensure patients get the care they need after they leave. For example, a nurse might teach a family member how to properly care for a burn using over the counter supplies, or work with the physician and medical team to secure an order for home care

Helping the Whole Person

In addition to medical care, nurses make sure patients and families maintain psychosocial health. They forge close relationships with their patients and patients’ families, and are as concerned with how a disease or illness affects a patient emotionally as they are with treating the ailment. A nurse will also examine a patient’s coping skills and emotional and spiritual needs, and provide support – or referrals to support – if deemed necessary. Nurses have the opportunity to build deeper and longer-lasting bonds with their patients than a medical assistant is able to.

The Nursing Intangibles

Like medical assistants, nurses must be comfortable working with healthcare providers and members of the general public. Nurses often work long hours and in stressful situations. Nurses exercise a great deal of critical thinking and clinical judgment; they must be flexible and able to quickly and easily adapt to changes in patient condition and workplace priorities. Today’s nurses are also technically adept; they use computers, cell phones, tablets and other digital devices often.

From the Expert

Jackie Hayes, medical assistant instructor at the College of Continuing and Professional Education at Kennesaw State University, discusses medical assistant career advancement.

Q

What additional courses or training could a medical assistant take in order to advance their career options?

ADepending upon the direction you want to take your MA career, additional training could be focused on specific clinical courses focused on working with specific populations such as aging populations, working with pediatric patients, working with patients with specific diseases or conditions (e.g. diabetes, pulmonary disease, fibromyalgia, and oncology). Other directions may be in areas such as health promotion, management, human resources, personal care, or care coordination support.

Q

What advice would you offer someone who is already a medical assistant and wants to go back to school to broaden their horizons?

AConsider what you like best about the experiences you have had in your career. Think about what you would like to be doing in 5-10 years and seek continuing education in that area. This may lead you on a similar path growing in clinical expertise in patient care or to a different direction utilizing the skills that you have developed working with other medical professionals and patient populations. Another option is business or human resource pathways leading to management positions in medical practice or other ancillary health services such as customer service or human services.

Q

What are some of the most common career advancements you see among medical assistants?

ABusiness such as office management or program management, clinical such as clinical supervisor, RN, care coordination, personal care, health promotion, physician’s assistant, or MA instructor.

Q

Any additional advice for those who are considering a broader career path?

AThe future for medical assistant careers looks very promising as the need for this skilled professional increases and opportunities for advancement in specialized clinical areas and other broader careers grows as well. I would encourage those who are practicing now and have affirmed that they have hearts for people and passion for helping others and enjoy working hard to look for opportunities to keep learning and expanding their horizons in the health care field. There will always be a need for dedicated, knowledgeable and caring health care professionals.

Resources for Medical Assisting Career Advancement

Advancing the Business of Healthcare (AAPC)

The AAPC provides training and certification for medical professionals who work in the business realm of healthcare, such as billing, auditing and coding.

American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)

The AAMA issues the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) certification, which is one of the most accepted medical assistant certifications.

American Medical Technologists (AMT)

The AMT provides a wide variety of certifications for healthcare professionals, such as the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA).

American Registry of Medical Assistants (ARMA)

Made up of members, the ARMA exists to promote the profession of medical assisting.

American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants (ASPMA)

The ASPMA works to promote the podiatric medical profession and improve educational standards for podiatric medical assistants.

Association of Technical Personnel in Ophthalmology (ATPO)

A professional organization representing a diverse group of ophthalmology medical professionals.

International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA)

A non-profit professional organization, the IMIA has the goal of advancing the interests of medical interpreters as well as setting language interpretation standards and educational requirements.

Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO)

In addition to promoting the interests of medical professionals within the ophthalmic realm, the JCAHPO also provides education and certification services for ophthalmic healthcare personnel.

National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)

The NCCT is one of several certifying organizations for medical assistants. The NCCT provides for the National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) certification.

National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters

The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters administers a certification program that requires both oral and written proficiency in order to become a Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI).

National Healthcareer Association (NHA)

Offering a large range of healthcare professional certifications, the NHA administers two major medical assistant certifications: the Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) as well as the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA).