The Definitive Guide to Becoming a Medical Assistant
Medical assisting can be a rewarding profession to work in if you’re looking pursue a career in the healthcare field. The employment prospects look good, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicting medical assistant employment to increase 23 percent in 10 years from 2014 to 2024. Consequently, medical assisting has become one of the fastest growing occupations in the US. At the time of writing, figures show that in 2015 median pay for medical assistants was $30,590 per year, or an hourly wage of $14.71.
One of the reasons is that the aging population is increasing demand for healthcare services provided by physicians. To enable them to see more patients, physicians will need to hire more medical assistants to carry out administrative and routine clinical duties to ensure the smooth day-to-day running of their practices.
There is of course potential for higher earnings depending on your level of experience, credentials and location. As well as offering a decent salary, medical assisting can provide job security and employment benefits such as health insurance and vacation pay.
Before taking the first steps to beginning a new career as a medical assistant, you should consider your own personal qualities and skills in order to decide whether becoming a medical assistant is the right career path for you. You must really care about helping other people and get job satisfaction from knowing that you can help make a difference in patient’s life. You also need to be organized and efficient, and be able to stay calm while performing multiple tasks at once.
So, how do you become a medical assistant? Here we will explore in depth the various steps you can take to beginning your medical assisting career and landing your dream job.
How to Train to Be a Medical Assistant
There are several ways to become trained to work as a medical assistant. You could learn on the job, complete a post-secondary training program at your local school or vocational college, or enroll on an online or hybrid program. Which of these options is right for you will depend on your particular circumstances and career goals.
Learning on the Job
The main advantage of not going to school to study for a medical assistant certificate, diploma or degree, and instead being trained on the job, is that you can earn while you learn without the cost of tuition fees. It may seem like a quick and inexpensive way to get into the medical assisting field. However, it can be very difficult to actually find a job where the employer is happy to take on someone with no formal training.
If you do want to pursue the option of getting trained on the job rather than completing a training program, you will need to have the minimum required level of education to be employed as a medical assistant, which is a high school diploma or GED. If you don’t meet the educational requirements and option is to take the GED test to get your GED.
Finding a Job
Once you have met the minimum educational requirements you will need to find an employer that is willing to employ you without any formal training and give you training on the job. Most doctors are looking to hire medical assistants who have at least graduated from an accredited certificate, diploma or degree program and preferably have also taken an exam to earn a certification credential. However, with persistence and a passion for medical assisting you may find a doctor willing to employ you and provide you with hands-on training on the job.
It is worth knowing that if decide you want to become a certified medical assistant in the future you will either need to go back to school to complete an accredited training program before taking a certification exam, or wait until you have worked as a full time medical assistant for at least five out of the last seven years before taking the AMT Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) exam. There is no legal requirement to be certified in order to work as a medical assistant, but having a certification credential can be beneficial for your carer progression, earning potential and marketability.
Training on a Formal Program
To increase your employability and career prospects you could complete a formal post-secondary medical assistant training program online, or at a community college, university or technical school. The minimum education you will need to enrol on a medical assisting program is a high school diploma or a GED. Certificate and diploma programs can be completed in around 12 months or less. An associate degree will take longer, around 18-24 months, but will provide advanced training, additional focus on general education, and may enhance your future career potential and earning prospects.
Earning a degree will also give you the option of studying for an additional degree in the health field in the future. For example, many graduates use their medical assistant degree as a stepping stone to earning a bachelor’s degree. Although degrees may make graduates slightly more marketable, this advantage has to be weighed up against the usually higher cost and longer length of training for an associate level degree program.
Most vocational schools and colleges offer traditional classroom learning on campus as well as externships, but many also provide entirely online programs or hybrid programs that combine online learning with some classroom instruction and laboratory training. Whether you choose a certificate, diploma or degree program online, on campus or a hybrid, if it is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) you will be able to apply to take a certification exam after graduation. There are a lot of medical assisting programs to choose from so you should be able to find a school offering a program that meets your requirements and suits your schedule.
When learning to become a general medical assistant you will complete courses in variety of medical related areas such as anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, medical law and ethics, medical office administration, billing and coding. In addition to learning about medical office administrative and clerical tasks, you will also learn how to perform routine clinical duties such as laboratory techniques, taking vital signs and how to administer medication under the supervision of a doctor or nurse.
If you know you have a desire to specialize in either the administrative or clinical side of medical assisting, there are programs that focus specifically on either of these fields. For example, if you’d prefer a desk-based job where your focus is on administration and paperwork, making telephone calls and scheduling appointments rather than direct patient care, then an administrative medical assisting program may be right for you.
Alternatively, a clinical medical assistant program will prepare you to be much more involved in hands-on patient care and clinical duties, such as working with doctors and nurses, administering medication, preparing rooms for patients and sterilizing medical instruments and equipment.
Obtaining hands-on clinical experience on an externship is a chance for students to apply what they’ve learned in class to real life situations, performing real administrative and clinical tasks and dealing with actual patients. If the program you choose doesn’t include an externship as part of the curriculum, you could arrange a summer internship yourself so that you get the opportunity to gain experience of working in a real healthcare facility. Having clinical experience in a healthcare setting looks good on your resume and can help you find a medical assisting job quicker after you graduate. Some graduates actually end up being hired by the facility where they completed their externship.
On Campus Programs
If you sign up for a traditional on campus program, you will be required to physically attend classes and lab training on campus during scheduled hours. A lot of schools offer some flexibility in class times, providing afternoon and evening classes to suit students’ different schedules. Many schools also offer the option to study either full time or part time. Being a full time student you will be able to complete your training and start work as a medical assistant sooner. Being a part time student will allow you more to time to work elsewhere to finance your studies, or balance your training with your family life and other commitments.
Some students like the structure and discipline of having to attend classes at set times. They feel they benefit from interacting with instructors and other medical assisting students in person. Another advantage of studying on campus is easy access to resources, such as libraries and career services.
Other people don’t like the lack of flexibility offered by set class schedules and find it hard to fit classes around their work and family commitments. It also takes time to travel to and from campus.
The appeal of completing a medical assistant program online is that you have the freedom to study in your own time and from anywhere with an internet connection. This gives you the flexibility to fit your coursework around your lifestyle and commitments, enabling you to continue working at the same time as completing your training.
Although you won’t have access to on campus resources, many resources will be available online as part of your program. You must bear in mind that without the structure of set class times you will have to be self-disciplined, organized and motivated. You will also not have much opportunity for face-to-face interaction with instructors and other students.
If your courses include clinical duties, you will still be required to complete some training at a physical on site location and arrange an externship at an approved healthcare facility to get hands-on real world experience.
Hybrid programs combine some on campus learning with some online training. For example, lab classes would need to be attended on campus under the supervision of an instructor. This gives you greater flexibility to set your own study schedule than a traditional entirely on campus program and cuts down on the time you have to spend traveling to and from school. You will be able to access online resources and also benefit from resources and services available on campus. You will be able to interact on campus with instructors and other medical assisting students.
It is important to remember that training on a hybrid program will require you to have self-discipline and be organized to complete your online coursework and arrange your schedule to enable you to attend some classes in person.
You will need to weigh up the pros and cons of attending an on campus program versus studying online or on a hybrid program, taking into account your personal circumstances and preferences.
It is not essential to become a certified medical assistant as there are many entry-level jobs for applicants that hold a medical assisting certificate, diploma or degree and don’t have a certification credential. However, many doctors prefer to employ medical assistants with certification credentials such as CMA (Certified Medical Assistant) or RMA (Registered Medical Assistant). In fact, one report by Gray Associates showed that 25 percent of medical assistant job listings requested that applicants have at least one certification.
When you are applying for medical assistant jobs, being certified shows potential employers that you demonstrate recognized standards of competency in medical assisting and are well-qualified to perform the duties expected of a medical assistant in a busy doctor’s office or clinic. Having to recertify on a regular basis demonstrates that you are keeping up to date with the latest trends in medical assisting. Having a certification designation can open up more job opportunities and lead to more upward mobility and higher salary expectations. It is important to note that certification and registration designations are interchangeable and simply relate to the professional body that awarded the title.
Recent new healthcare regulations mean that many healthcare facilities are now employing certified medical assistants to carry out Meaningful Use (MU) order entry duties in order to achieve Electronic Health Records (EHR) goals of switching patient details from paper to electronic records. The regulations stipulate that medical assistants must have a certification credential in order to perform these tasks, which is one reason there is an increasing demand for certified medical assistants.
How do you become a certified medical assistant? You can take an exam after you’ve graduated from an accredited training program. Certification exams are run by professional bodies that usually require candidates to have completed their training on a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited program, although there are other criteria for eligibility.
The CMA exam is run by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) and the RMA exam by the AMT (American Medical Technologists). The AMT will allow candidates who don’t hold a formal qualification, such as a medical assistant degree or diploma from an accredited school, to sit for the RMA exam, providing they have sufficient experience of working as a full time medical assistant.
Other professional bodies that award certification credentials include the National Center of Competency Testing (NCCT), which runs the National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) and National Certified Medical Office Assistant (NCMOA) examinations, and the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) that runs the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) and Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) exams.
Each examining body sets its own requirements for eligibility. The cost of the taking the exam, how long the credential is valid and the rules regarding recertification vary between them. Many medical assistant training programs include classes that prepare students to take one of the certification exams once they graduate. This is something you can check when choosing a school.
Getting a Job
Writing Your Resume and Cover Letter
The first step to finding a job as a medical assistant after you’ve completed your education is to write your resume. It’s important to spend time working on creating a professional resume that will give employers a favorable first impression of you. Of course, you need to provide details of your medical assistant training, certification credentials, relevant skills, qualifications and hands-on practical experience. The trick is to present the information in such a way that it will stand out and attract the attention of potential employers. Keep your resume concise but use terminology and keywords that will portray you as a desirable employee.
When you submit your resume to doctor’s offices you’ll need to accompany it with a cover letter. It is worth making the effort to write a customized cover letter for each job application, to demonstrate that you really want to work as a medical assistant for that particular practice. Research the employer and pay attention to the specific skills they are looking for in a medical assistant and what clinical and administrative duties the position entails. Then adapt your cover letter to reflect this and highlight why you feel you would be a good fit for the role and how you could contribute to the team.
Applying for Jobs
There are several places you can find medical assisting jobs advertised. One place you should try is your school’s job placement service. Another idea is to join the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). As a member of your local AAMA chapter you’ll be able to make connections with local healthcare employers and network with other medical assistants. The big job websites Monster and Indeed are other places to find healthcare employers searching for medical assistants.
When you’re first starting out with little experience of working in the healthcare field, looking for your first medical assistant role, you will increase your chances of landing a job if you apply with all kinds of healthcare facilities, including smaller specialist facilities such as chiropractors and podiatrists as well as larger doctor’s offices and clinics.
Going to an Interview
An offer of an interview is your big opportunity to impress a potential employer and could be the final stage in landing your first medical assistant job. Your resume and cover letter will have made a good enough first impression for the employer to want to meet you in person, and performing well at the interview is key to being offered the position.
Although you won’t know in advance exactly what questions you’ll be asked, you can prepare yourself by thinking about the sort of things an employer is likely to want to know about you. You should be prepared to give clear and confident answers regarding your training, credentials, experience and personal qualities, as well as be able to give examples of how you would react in certain situations. For example, how would you deal with a difficult patient?
Be clear in your own mind why you want the job, why you want to work for that particular practice, why you are passionate about medical assisting and why you believe you are the best candidate for the job.
On the day of the interview, arrive punctually and present a professional image. Dress appropriately, be confident, polite and professional. Remember to keep eye contact and at the end of the interview, shake the interviewer’s hand and thank them for the opportunity. If you come across well and do your best to convince the interviewer that you are the best applicant for the job, you will have maximized your chances of being offered the job and all your training will pay off.
To conclude, once you’ve made your decision on how to become a medical assistant you can take the following steps to beginning your new career:
- Complete your training on a traditional, hybrid or online medical assistant program (or get experience on the job)
- Consider taking a certification exam to increase your employability prospects and earning potential
- Prepare your resume, apply for jobs and ace the interview!
You will need motivation, drive and passion to pursue this career path, but the hard work and dedication will be worth it when you land your first medical assisting job in this rewarding healthcare occupation.