The Definitive Guide to Medical Assistant Certification
A question that is often asked is what is a certified medical assistant? The definition can be confusing, as there are a number of certification credentials that medical assistants can receive from different examination boards. One of these examinations, offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), awards the title of Certified Medical Assistant, commonly known by the abbreviation CMA (AAMA). However, there are several professional bodies that also offer certification opportunities.
Certification credentials awarded by other professional organizations include the titles of Registered Medical Assistant, RMA (AMT) and Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the American Medical Technologists; National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) as well as National Certified Medical Office Assistant (NCMOA) from the National Center of Competency Testing (NCCT); and Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) and Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association (NHA).1
Currently in the US there is no legal requirement for medical assistants to be certified. Entry level medical assistants can work in all the states after completing their training on a diploma, certificate or degree program without the need to sit an exam to earn an extra qualification. Certification is voluntary, but there are benefits to having this credential and many people choose to take an exam to become certified upon graduating from an accredited medical assisting program. Benefits of certification include:
- The potential to earn a better average annual salary or higher hourly wage than those that are uncertified
- Validation that a medical assistant has acquired the best level of skills, competencies and knowledge in their profession
- Better career prospects and increased chances of promotion to management positions
- Due to recent changes in healthcare regulations, many practices are hiring medical assistants to perform Meaningful Use (MU) order entry tasks, as there are financial incentives to healthcare facilities that meet Electronic Health Records (EHR) goals. Medical assistants must be credentialed in order to perform this role, hence the growing demand for certified medical assistants in job postings
Make Sure You are Eligible
The different certifying bodies have their own requirements regarding who is eligible to apply to sit the certification exam, how long the credential is valid, and the conditions that must be met in order to recertify. We outline the key requirements for each professional organization below.
American Association of Medical Assistants – AAMA
To be eligible to apply for certification, you must complete your training on a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited medical assisting program, either on campus or online. You must take the exam no more than 30 days before you graduate or within 12 months after your graduation. Non recent graduates that graduated on or after January 1 2010 can sit the exam within 60 months of graduation. Medical assistants who have previously held this credential can also retake the exam in order to be recertified.
If you’re certain you meet the requirements needed, you will have to submit an application to sit the exam. The AAMA website has all the information you need regarding the test and you can download the application form from there. You will need to pay a non-refundable application fee ($125). You should receive an update from the Certification Department on your application status within 30 days. You should receive an email to let you know that your application has been approved. The email will explain how to print off your Scheduling Permit. Once you’ve got this, you can arrange your appointment to sit the exam.
To make sure you do your best in the certification exam, you will need to study and do practice tests. There are some useful study guides and resources online, such as the Content Outline on the AAMA website. If you’re currently completing your training on an accredited medical assistant degree program, or are a member of your local AAMA chapter, you could take a Certified Medical Assistant exam review course. Once you’ve successfully passed the CMA (AAMA) exam, you will be awarded a certificate and accompanying wallet card to show evidence of your credential. This allows you to use the title Certified Medical Assistant (AAMA). Your certification will be valid for 5 years, after which time you will need to be recertified, which you can do either by using continuing education credits or taking another exam.
American Medical Technologists – AMT
Unlike the AAMA, the AMT provides certification and membership for various allied health professionals in addition to medical assistants, such as phlebotomists and medical lab technicians. For graduates of a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited medical assistant program, the AMT offers a nationally available certification exam that awards the title of Registered Medical Assistant, RMA (AMT). For candidates wanting to specialize in front office work, the AMT runs an exam to obtain the credential of Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA).
There are other criteria for AMT certification and the exam is not just open to graduates of an accredited degree program. For instance, graduates from a US Armed Forces formal medical services training program or individuals who have been employed in the medical field for at least 5 years can apply to take the exam.
Candidates can arrange to sit the examination at a PearsonVUE testing center of their choice once they have received their Authorization to Test letter. There are testing sites are locations across the country. Information on the areas of knowledge and competencies covered in the test can be found online at the AMT website www.amt1.com To maintain their certification credential Registered Medical Assistants are required to recertify every 3 years by obtaining a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs).
National Center for Competency Testing – NCCT
Founded in 1989, the NCCT offers certification for a range of healthcare professionals, including ECG technicians and insurance and coding specialists. Specifically for medical assistants it runs certification exams for the credentials of National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) and National Certified Medical Office Assistant (NCMOA).
To be eligible to take the NCCT exam, applicants must be graduates of an NCCT approved medical assisting program or have 2 years of qualifying full time employment experience. The exam can be taken at various sites around the country. Once awarded, NCCT certifications are valid for 5 years. In order to renew their credentials, medical assistants are required to complete 14 clock hours of continuing education each year on NCCT approved courses.
National Healthcareer Association – NHA
The NHA is a certifying agency that provides products and services to healthcare professionals. For medical assistants the NHA offers the credentials of Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) and Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA). The exam requirements are that applicants must be a graduate of an NHA approved training program or have at least 1 year of relevant full time employment experience and a high school diploma or GED. The exams are held at locations throughout the country. The NHA certification credentials are valid for 2 years, after which medical assistants must recertify by retaking the exam or completing 10 continuing education units (CEUs).
American Academy of Professional Coders – AAPC
Administrative medical assistants have the option of becoming certified as a medical coder. Once certified they will have to renew their membership every year and complete 36 hours of continuing education units every 2 years. More information can be found on the AAPC website.
The Best Way to Get Your Training to Become a Certified Medical Assistant
If you’re looking into training with the aim of becoming a certified medical assistant, you can choose between studying at a traditional school or career college, or through an online medical assistant program. If you want the convenience and flexibility of being able to study from home and set your own schedule, then an accredited online degree program could be the best way for you to complete your training before taking the certification exam.
It is important to make sure that whichever program you enroll on is accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), otherwise you will not be eligible to take the certification exams after graduation. Because of the increased demand by employers for certified medical assistants, many of the top medical assistant programs include classes in preparation for the relevant credentialing exam.
A report by Gray Associates2 suggests that 25 percent of medical assisting job ads are looking for applicants with at least one certification. To demonstrate they are multi-skilled and versatile, some medical assistants go on to earn extra credentials (known as credential stacking) in related areas such as phlebotomy or EKG administration. Some medical assistant degree and diploma programs offer the option of training for additional credentials, so this is another aspect you may want to consider when choosing your program.