How to Become a Medical Assistant

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By Heather Mullinix

Published on July 6, 2021

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Reviewed by Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC


Healthcare remains one of the fastest-growing career fields in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 15% job growth in all healthcare occupations from 2019-2029, thanks to longer life expectancy, an aging population, and an increased focus on preventative care.

Medical assistants stand out within this fast-growing field, with the BLS projecting the addition of more than 139,000 new jobs in this field from 2019-2029, an increase of 19%. Medical assistants help doctors and nurses provide patient care and customer service by carrying out clerical and clinical duties.

Medical assistants work in all care settings, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, physician offices, and clinics. Most work full time, but hours can include nights and weekends, depending on where you work. Many medical assistants specialize in a specific type of medicine, such as ophthalmology or podiatry.

Below, you can learn more about medical assistant requirements and the steps necessary to earn your medical assistant certification.

What Are the Requirements to Become a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants work alongside physicians and perform a variety of tasks in medical offices to assist the physician. They record patient medical history, prepare treatment rooms, and authorize prescriptions for pharmacies. They may also explain medical procedures to patients, operate medical equipment, and collect specimens for lab tests.

Medical assistant training programs help individuals gain the clinical skills necessary to perform these tasks while also developing skills in critical thinking, communication, and customer service.

Medical assistant training programs require applicants to have a high school diploma or an equivalent. Courses in these programs typically include anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, and medical office procedures. Programs may also include classes in infection control and medical billing and coding.

Assignments and clinical practice develop students' skills in active listening, patient sensitivity, and information recording. Students gain experience using computer programs that are common in an office setting, including electronic medical records.

Depending on the program, you may graduate with a diploma or an associate degree. Associate degree programs offer a path to a four-year degree later or the opportunity for specialized certification. If you plan to seek medical assistant certification, you must verify your program holds accreditation from the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

The time required to complete medical assistant training varies by the type of program you choose and the educational credential you seek. Times range from a few weeks to several years, and you can take classes in person or online. Regardless of which training you pursue, be sure to choose an accredited program.

Many career-focused schools provide streamlined training in the most important skills required for medical assistants, but do not require other general education courses, such as math, science, or history. This cuts down the time students need to complete their training. Expect to spend a few months to three semesters in a medical assistant diploma program.

Students who choose an associate degree in medical assisting typically spend two years in school. In addition to the medical courses, like medical terminology or anatomy and physiology, students also take general education courses. While this path requires more time to complete, students may transfer their credits to a four-year college to earn a bachelor's degree.

What Does Medical Assistant Training Look Like?

Medical assistant training programs combine lectures and classroom sessions with hands-on training. Classroom sessions help you build a foundation in skills such as insurance billing, medical records management, and charting. Instructors often combine these sessions with hands-on learning activities, such as role-play or mock clinical settings, to build skills in patient care.

Many programs incorporate soft-skills development and professionalism throughout their curriculum. This may include holding students to strict attendance policies or codes of conduct while in training.

Once you complete the classroom portion of the training, schools may place you in a healthcare office to work with experienced medical assistants and healthcare practitioners. These externships may require 180 or more hours of work with local healthcare partners, a requirement for many professional certifications.

What Does a Medical Assistant Certification Entail?

Few states require licensing for medical assistants. Many, however, recognize professional certifications from accredited certifying agencies, allowing medical assistants to use their certification in their title. Certification remains a voluntary process in terms of state regulations, but many medical assistants find the credential helps verify their abilities.

A recognized professional credential also helps individuals meet employer requirements and qualify for higher-paying opportunities. According to the National Healthcareer Association's 2020 Industry Outlook, about 89% of employers encourage or require medical assistants to seek certification.

Professional certification verifies an applicant's work experience, professional recommendations, and performance on an exam. Professional organizations often require compliance with a professional code of conduct and continuing education to maintain certification status.

Several recognized organizations offer accredited certifications. Options include the certified clinical medical assistant designation offered through the National Healthcareer Association, the certified medical assistant credential from the American Association of Medical Assistants, and the registered medical assistant certification from American Medical Technologists.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Career in Medical Assisting

What is the average medical assistant salary?

Medical assistants reported median earnings of $35,850 in 2020, according to the BLS. Pay ranged from less than $26,930 to more than $50,580. Several factors impact salary expectations, including education, experience, and location.

Does becoming a certified medical assistant translate to more money?

While states do not yet require medical assistants to go through a licensing process, many employers do seek out individuals who have earned a professional certification from an accredited organization. The National Healthcareer Association found 63% of institutions increase pay for employees who earn a professional certification.

Are there free medical assistant certification programs?

Because of high demand in the medical field, you may find programs available in your state that offset the cost of medical assistant training programs. Tennessee, for example, offers the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs to help students earn industry certification or an associate degree in high-demand fields. Associate degree students may also qualify for federal student financial assistance, such as grants or subsidized loans.

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Reviewed by:

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.

As master's degree programs have grown in popularity, graduate student loan debt has increased substantially. An MBA can open the door to many high-paying jobs in the business field. Learn about the best MBA jobs in 2021, from accountant to product marketing manager. This landing page acts as an introduction and overview of online college planning resources for students.

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