What to Know About Being a Medical Assistant

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Reviewed by Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC

The healthcare industry continues to need skilled healthcare practitioners to serve patients with the best possible care. Medical assistants serve as key players on a medical team, and employers need more individuals trained specifically for this role.

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What should you know about medical assistants? These professionals perform many duties within a medical office or healthcare organization, from administrative tasks to clinical work. Most work with primary care providers, but the field offers opportunity for specialization.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that about 725,000 medical assistants were employed in 2019, with 57% working in physicians' offices. Most medical assistants completed postsecondary certificate programs requiring a few months to a year to graduate.

What Is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants do not perform diagnostic duties — that's left to nurses, physician assistants, and physicians. So what is a medical assistant? These individuals support physicians and other medical professionals to ensure high-quality patient care and to help the office run smoothly.

Medical assistants provide patient customer service. They may take patient histories, measure vital signs, and enter information into electronic medical records. They may also assist physicians during patient exams or prepare samples for laboratory testing.

Medical assistants must have good communication skills, critical thinking abilities, and professionalism. Medical assistant training programs or medical assistant associate degree programs help develop these skills. Associate degree programs typically take 1-2 years to complete, but some training programs take far less time, often less than a year.

Medical assistants may also focus on a specific role within a medical office. Administrative medical assistants, for example, may fill out insurance forms and record medical billing codes. They may also schedule appointments and answer telephones. Clinical medical assistants may need additional licensing or certification, but they can take on responsibilities such as preparing patients for X-rays and drawing blood.

What Training Does a Medical Assistant Need?

Training programs for medical assistants include courses in medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and electronic health records. Many schools also require hands-on learning through internships with local healthcare providers.

Many employers look for medical assistants who hold advanced skills related to electronic health records, medical scribing, and conducting phone screenings and triage. The 2020 Industry Outlook survey conducted by the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) found 35% of employers reported that medical assistants held more responsibility in their practices than the year before.

Most states have no licensing requirements for medical assistants unless they perform specific clinical duties. However, several organizations offer professional certification for medical assistants. This voluntary process involves passing an exam and demonstrating professional experience. These organizations include the American Association of Medical Assistants, American Medical Technologists, and the National Healthcareer Association.

What Is the Career Outlook for Medical Assistants?

The BLS projects 19% growth in employment for medical assistants from 2019-2029 — about 139,200 new positions. This projected growth exceeds projections for healthcare occupations overall in the same period (15%) and is much faster than the average projected growth for all occupations (4%).

Demand for healthcare services continues to grow as people live longer and seek preventative care to improve their quality of life. Medical assistants can take care of routine tasks within the medical office, allowing practitioners and clinical personnel to spend more time with patients.

What Is the Salary Potential for Medical Assistants?

Medical assistant salaries ranged from less than $26,930 to more than $50,580 in May 2020, with a median salary of $35,850. Junior colleges paid medical assistants the most, with an average salary of $48,720, followed by insurance companies which paid an average of $43,910.

Education, experience, professional credentials, and location all impact medical assistants' salaries. According to PayScale, entry-level medical assistants reported an average salary of $31,440 in June 2021, while experienced professionals in this role earned an average of $38,480.

Alaska reported the highest overall average salary for medical assistants ($46,610) in 2020. The highest-paying metropolitan area in 2020 was San Francisco — medical assistants in this area earned an average of $53,960 a year.

Earning a professional credential can increase your salary potential. NHA found 89% of employers encourage or require medical assistant certification, and 63% of employers report they pay certified medical assistants more than their peers without certification. These voluntary professional credentials require passing an exam that demonstrates skills and knowledge and performing ongoing professional development activities.

Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Assisting

Do you need to be certified to work as a medical assistant?

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States do not require licensing or medical assistant certification. However, many employers do require or encourage medical assistants to seek professional credentials from an accredited organization. Employers also have a tendency to reward workers with professional certification, with 63% reporting increased pay for certified medical assistants, according to NHA.

How long does it take to become a medical assistant?

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Career-focused training programs require a few months to a year to complete. An associate degree in medical assisting takes about two years. A two-year degree may also include general education courses, and these credits can often be transferred toward a four-year degree should you decide to continue your education later.

How much do medical assistant programs cost?

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You can find training programs at community colleges, vocational training centers, and nonprofit and for-profit medical training schools. The cost of a program depends on the type of school you choose.

According to The College Board, students attending a two-year college as an in-state student pay an average of $3,770 a year, compared to $10,560 per year at an in-state public four-year college. Private nonprofit colleges charge an average of $37,650 a year.

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Reviewed by:

Portrait of Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC

Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC

As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly twenty years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason teaches within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches students. Brandy brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and leader, having held roles at the managerial and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout. Brandy is an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments that contribute to the wellbeing of students.

Featured Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images

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