A Day in the Life of a Medical Assistant: A Crucial Profession in High Demand
Medical assistants are important healthcare professionals who perform a wide range of duties at clinics, medical offices, and other healthcare facilities. They’re also in high demand.
In fact, over the next decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the growth rate for the medical assistant profession to be 18%—more than double the rate for all occupations. That’s likely just one among many reasons why it appears on three different “Best Job” lists from U.S. News & World Report.
To help you better understand this profession, we provide a firsthand look at a day in the life of a medical assistant with the help of Jennifer Holl, a clinical assistant at the Allina Health Faribault Clinic. (Note: Medical assistants are also sometimes referred to as clinical assistants.)
A brief background on Jennifer Holl
Prior to becoming a medical assistant, Jennifer was a patient administration specialist in the military for six years. After leaving the military, she served as a patient advocate for a large health insurance company.
“That involved a lot of insurance coding and being on the phone with patients, as well as nurses and providers.” (The word provider typically refers to healthcare professionals like medical doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants.)
But Jennifer says she wanted “actual interactions in a clinic,” especially when it came to helping patients. That’s why she decided to become a medical assistant, earning her Associate of Science degree in Medical Assisting from Northwestern Health Sciences University. (For related information, see How to Become a Medical Assistant.)
Let’s take a closer look at a day in the life of medical assistant Jennifer Holl.
Understanding the daily routine
Although there are exceptions, medical assistants generally work at healthcare facilities that operate during regular clinic hours. This can include daytime, evening, and weekend hours but typically not holidays.
Jennifer works Tuesdays through Fridays, eight to ten hours a day, starting at 7:15 a.m.
Arriving early to prep and “pre-chart”
Part of a medical assistant’s responsibilities is preparing exam rooms for upcoming patients. That includes making sure the rooms have the needed supplies and sterilized medical instruments for any procedures scheduled for the day.
“I like to show up to work early so I can make sure my rooms are stocked,” says Jennifer. “I also pre-chart all the patients for the day, which means I review their medical records. That helps me know what my day is going to be like, and it helps the appointments go smoother for the provider.”
Helping patients overcome “white coat syndrome”
As a medical assistant, Jennifer is the person who calls a patient’s name in the waiting room, greets and escorts them to an exam room, and begins the clinic visit by measuring vital signs and then discussing their medical history (more on those responsibilities below).
A medical assistant’s calm, friendly demeanor can help patients feel more comfortable, which may be more important than many realize. Jennifer points out that some people have “white coat syndrome,” which essentially means they feel anxious around medical providers. That can elevate their blood pressure and, more generally, detract from having a beneficial clinic visit.
“In those cases, it’s part of my job to get them to feel more relaxed, maybe joke around with them, talk about some of their interests,” she says. “I want them to calm down enough so I can get a more accurate blood pressure and just help them feel more comfortable by the time the provider comes in.”
Providing assistance for various patient needs
According to Jennifer, a medical assistant may help with somewhere around 20 to 25 patients per shift, depending on factors like, for example, the provider’s level of experience.
As for specifically what she does to assist with patients, that will vary depending on the nature of each patient’s visit. “We help with such a wide spectrum of things, so no two days are the same,” says Jennifer.
There are, however, a few essential steps she carries out for all patients:
Taking vital signs and other key measurements. These include:
- Blood pressure
- Respiration rate
Other possibilities could include testing a patient’s lung functioning and conducting basic hearing and vision tests.
Conducting a medical history interview. Talking one-on-one with patients is a key part of Jennifer’s daily routine. She needs to ask various questions to establish or update the patient’s medical history and to find out the reason for the visit.
The conversation can range from specific health complaints, concerns, and symptoms to related topics that cover a patient’s social life, family dynamics, and work life.
“Obviously, people sometimes need to share things that are very personal. I’m not biased or judgmental. I try to create a feeling of warmth and trust. I want to get a detailed and accurate health history because that helps the provider give the patient the best care possible,” says Jennifer.
Other medical assistant responsibilities Jennifer has include the following:
Assisting the provider during procedures. Every day Jennifer has the opportunity to provide hands-on assistance with a number of minor medical procedures. Here are some examples that Jennifer has helped with:
- Pap smear
- Toenail removals
- Mole and skin tag removal
- IUD insertion and removal
Carrying out other medical procedures on her own. Additional medical procedures that Jennifer does include administering injections (i.e., “giving shots”) for:
- Pain medications
- Allergy medications
She also conducts throat and/or nasal cavity swabs that are used to test for illnesses like COVID-19, strep throat (short for streptococcus), and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).
In this short video, another medical assistant, Katy, describes her path from student to professional.
Special note on career options for medical assistants
The medical assistant profession can allow for more freedom of choice than many other career paths, even within healthcare. Jennifer, for instance, works in family practice and many of the patients she sees are expectant mothers or mothers who’ve just had a baby.
But she’s also worked in an ophthalmology clinic. “That was so different from family practice. And I think it’s important for people to know that there are just so many specialties and types of clinics you could move to as a medical assistant. You don’t really have to worry about being stuck in one kind of place.”
For example, these are just some of the areas you could work in as a medical assistant:
- Primary care
- Internal medicine
- Gerontology cardiology
- Occupational health
Working more on the administrative side
A medical assistant education, as Jennifer points out, can also prepare you for responsibilities that don’t necessarily involve direct patient care.
Specific examples of these duties include:
- Medical coding/billing
- Documenting patient information in electronic healthcare records
- Recording physician or nurse accounts on a patient’s condition
- Insurance preauthorizations
- Contacting patients to provide test results
- Managing the office
- Maintaining the appropriate inventory of medical and office supplies
(To learn more about being employed as a medical assistant, check out this post: Q&A on Being a Medical Assistant: Tips from a Hiring Manager.)
Why Jennifer loves being a medical assistant
How does Jennifer feel about her career as a medical assistant? Here are some of the biggest reasons why it’s the right profession for her:
Helping people feels great. “Being part of people’s healthcare is really rewarding,” she says. “It makes me feel good about myself that I can help other people. And that includes making a connection and getting them to feel more open and comfortable because a clinic visit can be kind of scary for some.”
She “loves” her patients. “I’ve even had some patients move from their old provider to the one I assist now just because of me. That’s a huge compliment,” says Jennifer.
There’s “good stress” to help the clinic function efficiently. “I would say that this job has good stress. You’re on your feet and always moving, and the day can go by fast,” says Jennifer. “You actually play a big part in the flow of the day for the provider because you’re helping them stay on schedule and be efficient. ”
A positive team environment. “I work with such a variety of people in different positions, but they’re all wonderful. It’s a great work atmosphere. There are no cliques. There’s no time for that. Everyone is professional, and we all respect one another. But we also manage to have fun too,” she says.
How Jennifer prepared for the medical assistant profession
Most healthcare employers require that their medical assistants complete a formal training program to obtain the appropriate diploma, certificate, or associate degree.
Jennifer, for example, earned an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in Medical Assisting from Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU), which took her just under two years to complete.
Note that medical assistant students at NWHSU also have the option of obtaining a Medical Assisting diploma in around a year, which gives them the opportunity to start working as a medical assistant while continuing towards the A.A.S. degree, if desired.
Here’s a helpful two-minute video on NWHSU’s Medical Assisting program.
Highlights of Jennifer’s experience at NWHSU
A thorough, hands-on curriculum. As you can see from the information above, being a medical assistant can be a very hands-on profession, one where you’re expected to carry out a variety of clinical responsibilities.
Jennifer says she felt ready for those responsibilities because of NWHSU. “The program pretty much prepared me for anything and everything,” she says.
One-on-one help. The NWHSU faculty, according to Jennifer, were there for her, even when she needed a lot of individual attention for a subject she struggled with.
“I’ve attended other schools, but I’ve never seen the kind of one-on-one help that the instructors at NWHSU were willing to offer,” she says.
A strong internship program. The internship, or practicum, portion of a medical assistant program comes after a student completes regular coursework. It involves carrying out medical assistant duties at an assigned real-world clinic.
If you’re looking into becoming a medical assistant, be sure you enquire how a given program places its medical assistant students in internships. Some may put the burden on you to find internship opportunities, while others are just the opposite. For example, NWHSU handles the entire placement process.
“My internship experience was excellent. I had already practiced the clinical skills I needed—plus, I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to intern,” says Jennifer. “And I actually got a job where I did my internship.”
In the following related video, medical assistant student Mikayla describes why NWHSU was the right choice for her.
Your next step: Reach out for more information on medical assisting programs
You now have a better understanding of a day in the life of a medical assistant. Could this profession be right for you? Take the next step and contact NWHSU today for personalized support on your path to becoming a medical assistant.