How to Become a Medical Assistant
If you’re searching for a rewarding career in healthcare, you should know the demand for medical assistants today is intense and the professional opportunities are vast. Learn how to become one below.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects a 23 percent growth rate for medical assistants between 2018-2028—nearly five times the average growth rate for all occupations.
Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report ranks the medical assistant profession No. 2 for Best Jobs without a (4-Year) College Degree, #6 for Best Healthcare Support Jobs, and #52 for 100 Best Jobs.
Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) is dedicated solely to preparing students for careers in healthcare. In this comprehensive overview, we’ll share what it takes to become a medical assistant and provide even more reasons why it could be a great profession for you.
- What a medical assistant does
- The requirements to become a medical assistant
- Information on how long the process can take
- The benefits of being a medical assistant
- Tips on how to choose a medical assistant program
What is a medical assistant?
If you’ve ever gone to a clinic or a physician’s office, you’ve likely been helped by a medical assistant. As a multi-skilled healthcare professional, a medical assistant typically works in outpatient settings like clinics and medical offices and is trained to perform a wide range of duties such as:
- Escorting patients to the examination room
- Measuring vital signs
- Assisting clinicians with examinations, procedures, and minor surgery
- Administering injections of medications and vaccines
- Drawing blood
- Applying dressings and bandaging
- Performing wound care
- Sterilizing and disinfecting medical instruments and equipment
- Performing limited laboratory testing
- Collecting and preparing laboratory specimens
In addition, a medical assistant may carry out administrative responsibilities, including:
- Medical coding
- Electronic medical records
- Insurance coding
- Office management
Note that a medical assistant’s specific roles and responsibilities will vary depending on the specific healthcare environment they work in.
What kind of education do you need to be a medical assistant?
To join the medical assistant profession, most employers require that you complete a formal training program to obtain the appropriate diploma, certificate, or associate degree.
At NWHSU, for example, medical assistant students have two options. They can pursue a Medical Assisting diploma or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in Medical Assisting. (See further below on how long each of these options typically takes.)
Note that both programs offer the medical assisting diploma, which gives you the opportunity to start working as a medical assistant while continuing towards the A.A.S. degree, if desired.
In addition, most employers require medical assistants to be certified. See more on certification below.
What prior education do you need to enroll in a medical assistant program?
Typically, a high school diploma or GED is the only prerequisite to enroll in a medical assistant program, although programs may require a minimum cumulative GPA.
How long do you have to go to school to be a medical assistant?
Depending on the ultimate credential you earn, medical assistant programs can vary in length from roughly ten months to two years.
NWHSU’s Medical Assisting diploma takes three trimesters, or one year. Our A.A.S. degree in Medical Assisting takes 20 months, which equates to five trimesters.
Your actual completion time will take longer if you opt to take courses on a part-time basis. On the other hand, it may take you less time if you have credits that transfer.
What courses do you take to become a medical assistant?
Specific course requirements will vary from one program to another. To give you an idea of the classes you’ll take to become a medical assistant, here’s an overview of coursework at NWHSU:
- Courses and lab activities related to medical assistant duties such as taking vital signs, providing wound care, administering injections, and assisting with examinations and procedures.
- Introductory level courses and lab activities in microbiology, hematology, immunology, and pharmacology, with an emphasis on how they relate to medical assistant practices like taking specimens, drawing blood, and running basic lab tests.
- Classroom coursework on administrative duties, procedural requirements, and electronic healthcare records, as well as on professionalism and cultural sensitivity.
- Training during internship in an actual clinical setting.
For more detailed information, check out this curriculum list, which also includes course descriptions.
Do you need to be certified to be a medical assistant?
Technically speaking, medical assistants do not require certification. However, most employers prefer or even require it.
Given the time, effort, and expense that goes into completing a medical assistant program, it’s generally considered a smart move to acquire certification to become a certified medical assistant (CMA). Here at NWHSU, we highly encourage it.
To become a CMA, you must pass the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) certification exam. Before you can sit for this exam, you must graduate from a medical assistant program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. (See more below on the importance of accreditation.)
The CMA designation is a nationwide certification, which means you won’t have to get recertified if you move to another state.
What is the difference between a CMA and a CNA?
A certified medical assistant (CMA) must obtain a diploma or associate degree from an accredited program and then pass a certification exam, a process that can take around one to two years depending on the credential earned. A certified nursing assistant (CNA) must obtain a special certificate or diploma, which can take from 4 to 12 weeks, and then pass a certification exam.
CMAs often work alongside medical doctors and physician assistants in healthcare settings like clinics and medical offices. They may room patients, take vital signs, draw blood, administer injections, and provide assistance with medical procedures.
CNAs typically work in settings like hospitals and nursing homes, providing hands-on care with bathing, dressing, feeding, and toileting.
What are the benefits of being a medical assistant?
1. Join a highly valued, fast-growing profession
Primary care clinics, hospitals, specialized practices for just about any medical area you can think of—all of these employ medical assistants. And they’re going to need more of them.
We’ve already mentioned the promising growth rate—23 percent between 2018-28—expected for the profession. One big reason for that is an older population.
According to U.S. News & World Report, aging baby boomers “will help drive demand for more medical assistants, who will be needed to support doctors and nurses as they diagnose and treat patients.”
2. Seize the opportunity to establish a rewarding career in healthcare
If you’ve wanted to join the healthcare field but had concerns about the time and expense it could take to pursue a four-year degree, the medical assistant profession could be a great choice.
In approximately one to two years (depending on the credential you earn), you can begin your medical assistant career in an exciting and expanding field that allows you to:
- Be on the frontlines of healthcare, where your empathy, expertise, and professionalism can help patients as they confront health concerns and challenges.
- Enjoy the great personal satisfaction that comes with the privilege of helping others.
- Play an integral role within a team of healthcare professionals.
And should you become interested, your medical assistant qualifications also give you a foundation for further education to pursue other areas in healthcare.
3. Enjoy a profession with a great work schedule
Though there are definitely exceptions, medical assistants often work in clinic or medical office settings that operate during regular daytime hours only. That means you’re much more likely to enjoy having weekends, evenings, and holidays off as a medical assistant.
Also, medical assistants generally have plenty of opportunities for part-time positions.
Features like these make the profession a great option for parents trying to accommodate the needs of their family.
4. Choose a healthcare area that you’re passionate about
Because medical assistants are needed in so many areas, you’ll have a greater opportunity to find a niche that matches your passion. For example, these are just some of the areas you could work in as a medical assistant:
- Primary care
5. Find a work environment that suits you
What kind of healthcare environment do you see yourself working in? From small clinics and single-practitioner medical offices to large-scale clinics and hospitals—you have a range of employment options as a medical assistant.
Working at a smaller facility could mean doing a wider variety of duties on a daily basis. On the other hand, at both small and large facilities, you may have the opportunity to specialize in a particular area of medical assisting, such as drawing blood or assisting with minor surgeries.
Some medical assistants may even develop an expertise in administrative areas like insurance coding, reception and scheduling, or electronic healthcare record-keeping.
The next step: Review medical assistant programs and find the best one for you
You’ll want to weigh a number of factors as you consider medical assistant programs—and ask lots of questions. Here are some of the most important.
Is the program accredited?
Not all medical assistant programs are equal. Make sure you choose a program that’s accredited. That means it’s been reviewed by an outside education authority to verify that it meets specific requirements and standards for educational quality.
For example, at NWHSU the Medical Assisting diploma program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs upon the recommendation of the Medical Assisting Education Review Board.
How supportive is the learning environment?
The roles of a medical assistant make it a very hands-on profession in which you may be expected to draw blood, administer injections, perform basic lab duties, and carry out other clinical tasks.
Some programs leave the hands-on training for the final phase of your medical assistant education, where you’ll be interning in an actual clinical setting.
Many medical assistant students find it extremely valuable to have hands-on training prior to their internship. That means learning important skills firsthand from faculty and practicing them in a comfortable, supportive environment.
By practicing hands-on skills repeatedly and having faculty check your progress, you’ll likely be more confident during your clinical internship—and have a more beneficial experience.
Be sure to ask how a program handles the clinical training of their students. You may want to find one that provides a hands-on laboratory where you can practice a variety of clinical skills under the supervision of helpful and easily accessible instructors.
What’s the program (and the school) like?
To give you an idea of what a program is like, schools may put on multiple admissions events a year for prospective students. If it’s not possible to attend in person, check out the program’s virtual events.
Similarly, to get a feel for the campus and the life of a student, you can schedule a visit or a virtual tour.
As you research programs, be sure you inquire about things such as:
- Class sizes. What is the instructor-to-student ratio? Smaller class sizes mean you’ll be able to have more access to your instructor. That can be particularly helpful for the many hands-on skills involved in preparing to become a medical assistant.
- Schedule flexibility. How easy will it be for you to fit courses into your life, especially if you already have work and/or family responsibilities? Programs vary in this respect, so find out how flexible the program is. For example, is it well-suited for attending part-time?
- Course delivery. Ask how the program delivers courses—online, in-class, a blend of these, other ways?
How much will it cost?
A program in medical assisting should be as transparent as possible as it clearly lays out its fees. As you consider cost, be sure to consider all the other expenses that will be involved in attending. For example, how will you get to school? And what will the expenses be related to that travel?
Make sure you incorporate financial concerns into your search early on. The best place to start is with a school’s financial aid specialists. Be sure to also research both school-sponsored scholarships and external scholarships.
Finally, here’s an important caveat as you research programs in medical assisting: Don’t simply look for the lowest cost. Remember that the value you gain from attending a given program will depend a lot on how well it prepares you to be a successful professional.
The program you choose should not only deliver subject matter but also help you develop the hands-on skills that are so integral to the profession. The best medical assistant programs provide easily accessible faculty and staff who can offer guidance, academic support, and even emotional support.