How to Become a Medical Assistant Be the First in Line to Assist Patients in Medical Clinics & Offices

Medical assistants help physicians, other healthcare personnel and patients. They are often the first person patients see behind the counter or the first person they encounter when it’s time to take their vital signs and start their medical evaluation. Learning how to become a medical assistant is the first step toward this rewarding career. This guide focuses on what aspiring medical assistants can expect from the various programs available, potential jobs after graduation and more.

Steps to Becoming a Medical Assistant

Becoming a medical assistant is a worthy goal, but success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a few very careful, methodical steps to choose the proper program, figure out how to pay for it, get the training required, and forge ahead into the workforce. Understanding those steps can help pave the way and make life easier for the person who wants to work as a medical assistant.

1 Choose the right program

Choosing the right program means seeking out a program that has been accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Accreditation means that the program or school has been judged by an independent body and found to meet the educational standards expected of high-quality programs in the nation. Accreditation matters, not only because many employers prefer it, but because it might be required in order to eventually become certified.

Choosing the right program also requires deciding on the final outcome: diploma, associate degree or certificate. Medical assistants who want to eventually move into other healthcare fields might be best served with the associate degree, which forms a foundation for further study. However, keep in mind that the associate degree might take up to two years. Students who want to move into the workforce quickly might want to choose the diploma or certificate, which might take one year or less.

The courses offered in a program matter as well. Though many medical assistants handle a wide variety of duties in the front office and working with patients, some choose to specialize in one or the other. Those who want to work in administration should take courses that focus on the “front office,” such as billing issues, customer service and insurance, while those who want to work with patients should focus on programs that prepare students to go further with patient care, with courses in phlebotomy, medical terminology and similar.

2 Figure out how to pay for it

All paths to paying for school should start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will help determine how much federal aid a student might be eligible to receive. Once that’s done, look into other sources of payment for education, such as scholarships (there are some that are specifically for those in the health professions), grants and workstudy.

Though many students might come to the happy realization that their schooling will be quite affordable, some might face hurdles along the way that make becoming a medical assistant a bit tougher. In that case, it pays to save money in anticipation of expenses, snag a part-time job during the pursuit, or perhaps look at a school that offers a better deal on tuition. Those who are already working in a medical office should also look into possible opportunities through tuition reimbursement.

Learn more about financial aid for medical assistant students
3 Do well in seeking the medical assistant diploma or certificate

Medical assistants will be expected to have a strong command of a variety of points, including everything from anatomy and phlebotomy to medical billing and customer service. Every bit of skill and knowledge matters, so it’s important to attend all classes and pay attention from the very first day of class.

A great deal of success in a medical assisting program can be attributed to studying hard. Complete all homework on time, set aside time to study for tests, asks professors for extra explanations if necessary, create study groups with fellow students and take all measures to ensure good grades.

Students will also need to find the best clinical opportunities possible. Most medical assisting programs require some hands-on training; when it’s time to choose an externship or clinical program, look for one that is highly challenging and gets good marks from other students. This helps ensure that the education will be top-notch, both in the classroom and outside of it.

4 Get certified in medical assisting

Though most states do not require certification, many employers do – and even if they don’t, certification proves a certain eagerness and dedication to the world of medical assisting that can make an applicant stand out among the sea of those looking for employment. Certification proves that a medical assistant has been tested and proven to have a certain amount of knowledge and skills that can be advantageous for any employer.

There are several potential medical assisting certifications, but the five below are listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants
  • Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists
  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association
  • Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association

Earning the certification typically requires passing an examination and graduating from an accredited program.

Learn more about medical assistant certification
5 Consider going further in the healthcare industry

Once education is complete and certification is earned, it’s time to put all that knowledge to work. Those who land an entry-level job can settle in, then look toward the future once again. Deciding to take the work of a medical assistant even further by going back to school is an option that might be attractive for those who want to enhance their career options in the healthcare industry. Those who have earned an associate degree may wish to use that as a stepping stone to earn the bachelor’s degree in nursing, administration and more.

But those who are happy with working as a medical assistant can simply expand their horizons with a variety of certifications. Becoming certified in certain office programs, phlebotomy, medications and other points that are crucial to the work of a medical assistant can help ensure a competitive rate of pay and perhaps even better job security.

Read more in our Guide to Medical Assistant Career Advancement

Choosing a Medical Assistant Certificate or Associate Program

Learning how to become a medical assistant starts with the education, either the certificate of completion or the associate degree. Those who graduate from either one are qualified to work as a medical assistant; however, there are some differences in the programs, such as the time required, classes taken, amount of credits and more. Here’s what to expect from each.

Certificate Associate Degree
Earning the certificate usually takes one year or less. Time Invested The associate degree requires two years of full-time study, though accelerated courses might drop that time to 18 months.
The certificate program is designed to allow students to move into the workforce quickly, and so gets right down to brass tacks. Courses have very targeted focus in medical billing, office operations, clinical component, laboratory procedures and medical terminology. Class Focus Though students who complete the associate degree are well-prepared to move into the workforce, their education might include both targeted courses and some general education courses, which form the foundation for the potential bachelor’s degree later along in their career.
Students can typically expect to earn 35 credits, which is equal to about one year of full-time study. Credits Earned Students who complete the associate degree can expect to earn around 90 credits, or the equivalent of two years of full-time study.
The certificate can be earned through vocational or technical schools, through online means, a hybrid education or in a traditional classroom setting. There is often a hands-on component, which must be completed in person. Online schools coordinate with local employers in order to help students obtain this necessary education. Learning Format Many associate degree programs are offered through community colleges, which are set up to handle online, hybrid or traditional education. The hands-on component must be completed for most programs at the school itself or through coordination with local employers.
The certificate program is often the fastest way to earn the necessary education and get into the workforce. Since most programs take less than a year, there is also the time and cost savings to consider. Why Choose It? The associate degree takes two years, but it provides graduates with one distinct advantage: Credits earned might be suitable for the foundation of a bachelor’s degree if they choose to further their education at some point down the road.

Skills & Abilities Required to Become a Medical Assistant

The U.S. Department of Labor (U.S. DOL) classifies medical assisting as a “job zone three,” which means that medium preparation is needed for the career. Most jobs in this category require vocational school training, on-the-job training or an associate degree. Sixty-five percent of medical assistants have a post-secondary certificate, 18 percent have an associate degree, and 10% have a high school diploma or equivalent. The U.S. DOL reports this job involves using specialized communication and organizational skills, abilities and knowledge, including:

Skills

CommunicationBeing able to clearly convey instructions and information simply and effectively.

ListeningThe ability to give full attention when people are conveying information and understand what they are saying. Being able to ask pertinent questions based on information given.

Reading ComprehensionBeing able to read medical documents, correspondence, and related documents with full understanding of the information being conveyed.

Customer ServiceBeing knowledgeable, courteous and comfortable when conveying information to patients and providing patient solutions.

Abilities

PerceptionUnderstanding and being aware of people’s moods and reactions, as well as why they react in a certain way.

SensitivityBeing able to see when someone is in distress and comfort them. Recognizing when there is a problem.

Attention to DetailAble to observe and record all details, no matter how seemingly minor.

WritingBeing able to write reports and updates in clear and concise manner.

Knowledge

TreatmentShould know the techniques and tools used to assist healthcare professionals in diagnosing and treating injuries, illnesses, etc.

TerminologyKnowledge of medical and anatomical words and their meanings, ability to use the words appropriately and in context.

ClericalUnderstanding of medical administrative procedures and systems including records, forms, and more.

ComputersShould be able to receive and send scans, reports and other medical documentation and conduct research.

One Step Beyond:
Medical Assistant-Related Programs and Degrees in Action

The careers below illustrate just a few of the diversified career paths and specializations that some medical assistants choose to follow either while they work as a medical assistant, or after they’ve gained experience as one.

Phlebotomist

Job Duties Works closely with patients to draw blood for various medical purposes, such as laboratory testing and blood donations. They are also expected to prepare medical equipment for blood drawing, clean equipment and the medical area, enter patient information into healthcare records, and conduct billing and other administrative tasks.
Desired Skills Phlebotomists often work with those who are afraid of needles, so they must have a great deal of patience and compassion; someone who is able to soothe the nerves and make their patients happier will likely find success. Other skills needed include attention to fine detail, working well under pressure, and having a strong bedside manner.
Education & Training A certificate or diploma from a post-secondary school is required and takes about a year to complete. Part of the education and training includes medical terminology, human anatomy and proper management of blood samples.
Certification Although not required in most states, certification is strongly recommended and is offered by a variety of organizations, many of which also offer certifications for medical assistants.
Annual Median Wage (2014) $30,670
2014-2024 Job Growth 25%
Did you know? Phlebotomy can trace its historic roots back to the ancient medical practice of blood-letting.

Sources: BLS, Phlebotomy Training Group

Ophthalmic Assistant

Job Duties Works directly with patients and patient records in an ophthalmic office under the direction of an ophthalmologists. Tests patients’ vision with high- and low-tech tools, administers medication in the eye, records patients’ medical history, and operates sophisticated medical equipment.
Desired Skills Those in this position should be able to establish a good rapport with patients while listening carefully and speaking clearly.
Education & Training Completing a clinical training program, certification, on-the-job training.
Certification Not required by most states, but employers may require it. The Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO) offers several certifications, including Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA), Certified Ophthalmic Technician (COT) and Certified Ophthalmic Medical Technologist (COMT). To be certified, candidates must pass an exam and complete either an accredited formal clinical training program (no work experience), an accredited formal training program with specific work experience, or an online study course with specified work experience.
Average Hourly Wage (2016) COA: $16.38; Not certified: $14.62
2012-2022 Job Growth 29.8 %
Did you know? Sonography and ultrasound can be performed on the eye, and certification is available from JCAHPO.

Sources: JCAHPO, ONet Online, Payscale, Projections Central

Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)

Job Duties Working under the supervision of doctors and registered nurses, LPN/LVNs provide medical care to patients, including providing medications and bedside care, assisting patients with everyday activities, monitoring and recording vital signs and updating a patient’s medical information.
Desired Skills These nurses are very hands-on and work with patients every day, so they must have excellent communication skills. They must be able to not only speak with the patient and the patient’s family, but also convey important information to other member of the medial team. Compassion and attention to detail also matter.
Education & Training A certificate, diploma or degree from an approved LPN/LVN program is required. These programs last one to two years and cover subjects such as pharmacology, biology, nursing and hands-on clinical training.
Certification Certification usually isn’t required, but licensing is. This generally consists of submitting an application to the applicable state nursing board, passing the NCLEX-PN and graduating from an approved LPN/LVN program.
Annual Median Wage (2014) $42,490
2014-2024 Job Growth 16%
Did you Know? According to payscale.com, LPN/LVNs report a high level of job satisfaction.

Source: BLS, Payscale

From the Expert

Padmini Hamrajh discusses her work as a certified medical assistant.

Tell us about a bit about what your day-to-day work is like as a medical assistant. 

The first thing I do when I enter the office is turn on the computer and sign into the EMR (electronic medical records) system. I then proceed to check all of the exam rooms, equipment, and machines to make sure they are stocked and fully functioning. At this point I would also do a quick scan of our inventory to see if supplies need to be ordered. Afterwards, I would go through the list of patients to be seen for the day and put in notes for those who need to update their information.

Then our patients would start to arrive. Throughout the day, I help answer phones, make appointments, do call backs, get patients registered, load them into the exam room, do their intake, and assist the physicians with the appropriate treatment they are providing. This includes helping with prescription preparation and/or changes, assisting with medical and cosmetic procedures, cleaning up the patients and exam rooms, giving wound care instructions, and directing them to schedule a follow-up appointment.

At the end of day, we make sure all of the required and appropriate paperwork is completed, exam rooms are clean, instruments are put to sterilize, and specimens prepared to be sent out. Finally, before I leave the office, I do a quick run through to make sure everything is in its appropriate place and all the machines are turned off. 

Tell us about your certifications.

I am a certified medical assistant. I have my medical assistant certification, which includes EKG (electrocardiogram) and phlebotomy (drawing of blood). I have my first aid and CPR certification as well.  Having these certifications has helped me to assist the physicians that I have worked with and are currently working with. They have also prepared me to be ready for the unexpected to occur.

What advice would you offer to students who are considering becoming a medical assistant?

There are a lot of steps involved in becoming a medical assistant, but don’t let this discourage you. Becoming a medical assistant requires months to years of classes and clinical training, depending on the level of certification you are trying to obtain. You learn a lot information along the way and some interesting clinical procedures, which can seem to be challenging at times. When things seem to be challenging, don’t give up.

Studying, practicing, and repetition are the key factors you need to become a successful medical assistant. It is also good to ask questions and try to keep up to date with new medical education that is discovered throughout the years to come. You will also learn a lot of things along the way when you obtain a career in the medical field. A medical assistant can find a job in many of the specialties in the field of medicine.