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What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants are a vital part of the healthcare system. They typically work in outpatient settings under direct supervision and perform a mix of clinical and administrative tasks. Duties vary by facility, as assistants work in all kinds of medical environments from hospitals to nursing homes to private practices.

Many medical assistants spend their time keeping the practice running smoothly. Their duties might include scheduling appointments, arranging procedures, filing paperwork, checking vitals, and performing laboratory work.

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Steps to Become a Certified Medical Assistant

Becoming a medical assistant is one of the quickest ways to enter the healthcare field. Medical assistants only need to have a high school diploma to work in this role, though many choose to become a certified assistant to receive their training.

  • Step 1: Obtain Training

  • Step 2: Become Certified

  • Step 3: Work Experience

  • Step 4: Consider Next Steps


Step 1: Obtain Training

Many colleges, universities, and vocational schools offer medical assistant training. You’ll need to weigh these options carefully, as the type of school you attend will impact your opportunities for advancement down the road. You can earn a certificate in medical assisting in as little as nine months if you opt for vocational training or you can choose to receive an associate degree in medical assisting in 18-24 months. The latter option will make it easier to return to school if you decide to earn a bachelor’s degree later on.

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Step 2: Become Certified

Becoming certified as a medical assistant is not a requirement in most states, but many employers prefer to hire assistants that have earned their certified medical assistant credential (CMA). To sit for the exam, you must have completed your training at an accredited school.

Step 3: Work Experience

Research prospective employers and spend some time crafting your resume and cover letter. While this is a growing field with a lot of need, it can still be hard for new assistants to break into the field. When you land a job, you’ll perform a mix of clinical and administrative duties. Take note of the parts of the job you like most and consider whether you’d like to earn certifications to work in a specialized role or return to school to become a nurse or pursue healthcare administration.

Step 4: Consider Next Steps

Because there is no traditional path or set of requirements that assistants must meet, it may be hard to find high paying work as a medical assistant. This job comes with a great deal of stability and is in high demand, but there is a limit to how much you can earn. That said, your experience as a medical assistant can serve as a starting point for your career in healthcare. Consider your options, whether that’s finishing a bachelor’s degree or pursuing certifications to increase your pay.

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Medical assistants are responsible for a combination of administrative and clinical duties. Often, they take medical histories and record patient vital signs before the patient meets with the doctor. This is usually the first person you speak with when you arrive at a clinic, the assistant might ask about medical history, take your weight, and discuss the purpose of your visit. Additionally, medical assistants work in the backend of the office, keeping patient records, answering phones, and performing data entry tasks like coding or billing.

Clinical duties vary by state law; some states allow medical assistants perform basic laboratory tests and perform tasks like administering medication or vaccinations, while others limit their activities to cleaning equipment and talking with patients. While medical assistants explain procedures and help prepare patients for examinations, they are not to be confused with physician assistants. Physician assistants differ from medical assistants in that they can treat and diagnose patients, much like a doctor or nurse practitioner. Physician assistants must have a master’s degree to enter the field, while medical assistants can begin working after a short training program.

Skills to Acquire

Medical assistants are often the first point of contact for a patient, so they must have excellent communication skills and be able to make people feel comfortable in a medical setting. Additionally, you need to develop a mix of administrative and clinical duties. Medical assistants perform several office tasks, as an administrative assistant would in any business. You’ll need excellent customer service skills and be able to handle administration tasks like bookkeeping, billing, and scheduling.

On top of the primary office tasks, you’ll need to develop medicine-specific administration skills like taking inventory of medical supplies, working with insurance companies, medical billing, and managing patient records. Outside of the back office, medical assistants work with doctors and nurses in a clinical capacity. So, you might perform intakes at the beginning of a visit, taking blood pressure, weight, and discussing the purpose of the visit.

A rundown of the basic skills needed:

  • Ability to follow HIPAA confidentiality rules
  • Data entry
  • Scheduling appointments and procedures
  • Processing insurance forms
  • Knowledge of medical terminology
  • Bookkeeping
  • Customer service
  • Performing CPR
  • Arranging prescription refills
  • Relaying information from doctors to patients
  • Maintaining medical equipment
  • Applying and cleaning wound dressings
  • Administering injections
  • Preparing patients for exams
  • Receiving patients

Medical assisting is a good fit for someone with top-tier soft skills. You should be personable and able to break down doctor recommendations in plain language quickly. Additionally, you need to be detail-oriented and ready to move between several tasks with ease.

It is worth noting that many of these skills outlined above are transferrable to a wide range of healthcare jobs, as well as administrative roles that offer significantly higher pay. Medical assistants without a bachelor’s degree may find they have trouble advancing in their careers without this credential, despite all of the experience earned on the job.

Alternative Paths

Because you don’t necessarily need to complete a bachelor’s degree or an associates to break into this role, there are a few ways to becoming a medical assistant. The most obvious way to jump-start your career is what we’ve outlined above; enrolling in a program and starting in a general, entry-level role.

You can choose to get this training from a vocational program, often at for-profit schools. These programs generally take about 18 months to complete and aim to get students ready to start their career. In other cases, you might choose to enroll in a similar program at a community college, earning an associate degree in medical assisting. This might be a better choice, as you’ll be able to start working right away while also having completed some college credits, which can later be used to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

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It is possible to become a medical assistant with a high school diploma or GED, plus on the job training, though employers typically select applicants that have received additional training and obtained certification. While most employers do prefer candidates with some experience under their belt, some doctors provide training. That’s not necessarily the norm, though. Your best bet is to start your career by getting an associate’s degree to prepare for this role, as you can start working within a year or two and segue into a four-year degree down the line.

Medical Assistant Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


As mentioned, most medical assistants work in a hospital or a doctor’s office. According to the BLS, 57% of medical assistants work in a physician’s office. Most work full-time, though hours may vary. Medical assistants typically work as both an administrative assistant, performing patient intakes, entering data, and answering phone calls. The other part of the job is measuring vital signs, helping with exams, and preparing patients for lab tests. The breakdown will vary by environment; those working at a small clinic might take in a broader range of tasks than an assistant at a large hospital where everyone has a specific set of duties.

Additionally, some medical assistants seek out additional training within a specialty. For example, administrative medical assistants spend most of their time filling out insurance information and coding patient information. Clinical medical assistants work hands-on with doctors and nurses. Their duties include sterilizing medical equipment, drawing blood, preparing patients for x-rays, and changing dressings.

Potential Career Paths

Certified Nursing Assistant:
Certified nursing assistants bathe and dress patients, serve meals, take vital signs and serve as a liaison between patients and doctors and nurses. As you can see here, the job description is quite similar to that of a medical assistant. The main difference is that a certified nursing assistant will have passed an exam after completing a state-approved program. This added credential brings a uniform standard to the profession, which may make it easier to find work than it would be for a medical assistant without certification.

Dental Assistant:
Dental assistants perform a similar set of duties as a medical assistant but in a dental office. This role involves performing office tasks and helping dentists and dental hygienists as they examine and treat patients.

Home Health Aide:
A home health aide supports patients inside their home. They’ll take on a caretaker role that might involve shopping for food, providing laundry or housekeeping, while at the same time monitoring physical and mental health conditions. Often, health aides will work with elderly patients who need extra help or people recovering from a severe illness or injury.

Clinical Medical Assistant:
A clinical medical assistant works exclusively on the clinical side of a medical facility. Their job is to assist patients, prepare them for exams or testing, and explaining procedures, treatment, and processes to them. Clinical medical assistants support doctors and nurses and, in some states, take vital signs and administer vaccinations.

Healthcare Administrator:
Another viable career path for a medical assistant is to transition into a healthcare administration role. Though you’ll need to return to school to become an administrator, many of the administration tasks that an assistant might perform, such as maintaining medical records, billing, scheduling, and dealing with insurance claims will be valuable experience you can build on. Healthcare administrators typically need a bachelor’s degree to find work at the entry to mid-level and may require a master’s degree if they wish to advance to a director or executive position.

Physician Assistant:
As mentioned above, a physician assistant’s job is often mixed up with a medical assistant’s job. Though the names are similar, physician assistants are required to earn a master’s degree and become licensed before they can work in this field. They often perform many of the same tasks as a medical doctor, diagnosing and treating patients. While the role sounds similar to that of a nurse practitioner, the difference is that NPs are trained in the nursing education model, which focuses on making patients comfortable both physically and emotionally. PAs concentrate more on the medical model, which approaches patient care by looking at anatomical and physiological perspective. Medical assistants may choose to further their education and become a PA, a nurse, or work in an administrative role.

Registered Nurse:
Another logical path for a medical assistant is to earn a bachelor’s degree and nursing credential after gaining some work experience. Registered nurses record and monitor patient symptoms, changes in their condition, and perform diagnostic tests.

Office Manager:
Office managers organize office operations such as booking, ordering supplies, and managing databases, payroll, and support staff. This person often works closely with HR and the IT department to ensure everything is running smoothly behind the scenes. Medical assistants might take on many of these duties within a clinical setting and may eventually find work in a purely administrative role, in or out of the healthcare system.

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Medical Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Certified Clinical Medical Assistant $26,000 $33,000 $47,000
Administrative Assistant $29,000 $40,000 $57,000
Medical Assistant (Not Certified) $34,000 $35,000 $49,000
Medical Office Assistant $23,000 $32,000 $45,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

The medical field is growing at a breakneck pace due to an aging population in the US. The BLS predicts that the medical assistant profession will rise at a 29% rate between 2016 and 2026, which is much faster than average. The boomer generation is expected to increase demand for preventative care, and as such, physicians will need more assistance to perform administrative and clinical tasks, allowing doctors to see more patients.

The median annual wage is about $32,000, and there isn’t much upward mobility. Chances are, if you land in this profession, you’ll always be able to find work, but there’s not much room for advancement unless you return to school for additional training. Still, it’s worth pointing out that you can train to become a medical assistant in about a year and start working. Meaning, it might be a stepping stone toward funding a bachelor’s degree or graduate education down the line.

Advancing From Here

After completing your training, you’ll likely start working as an entry-level CMA. As you gain experience, it makes sense that you might seek out new challenges or opportunities to earn more money. While there isn’t necessarily a straightforward path for advancement, there are a lot of ways you can move up in your career. Medical assistants typically break into the field by earning a post-secondary degree or on-the-job training. So, more advanced roles often require returning to school.

One option is seeking out specialty training. Cardiology, ophthalmology, podiatry, gynecology are all potential areas where you might choose to focus. In these cases, you can earn certifications that qualify you for a more specialized role.

Beyond that, it might be worth using your expertise to further your education. Experience with medical coding and billing may be useful if you choose to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree in medical administration. Or, maybe you’ll decide to attend nursing school or focus on another aspect within the healthcare space. If you plan on earning a bachelor’s degree, nursing and healthcare administration are solid options. Earning a master’s degree could open more doors, allowing you to become a physician assistant or earn a management role in health administration.

It’s not uncommon for former medical assistants to move into a role that builds on their existing skill set. Office management, administration, nursing, or healthcare management are all natural fits for someone who has spent time getting familiar with this field. As you consider your options, take stock of what you like most about your career and work from there.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What do medical assistants do day to day?

Medical assistants perform a combination of administrative and clinical duties. Medical assistants take blood pressure, measure vital signs, preform basic laboratory tests, and help physicians with examinations. Medical assistants give medications and injections under a physicians direction. Medical assistants also schedule appointments and fill out medical records and update them as needed.

Where can medical assistants work?

Medical assistants can work in private practices, rehab centers, hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, and outpatient care facilities.

How long does it take to become a medical assistant?

Many technical and vocational schools offer a medical assistant program. These programs typically take around two years to complete.

How much do medical assistants make?

Medical assistants make around $37,000 annually.

What skills should medical assistants have?

Medical assistants need to be empathetic, detail-oriented, committed to accuracy, and adaptable. Medical assistants need good interpersonal and multitasking skills. Medical assistants need to be organized, good at problem solving, and good in a team environment.

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