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 expects a 16 percent growth rate for medical assistants between 2021–2031, more than three times the average growth rate for all jobs. Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report ranks the medical assistant profession No. 9 for Best Jobs Without a (4-Year) College Degree and No. 10 for Best Healthcare Support Jobs.
Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) is dedicated to preparing students for careers in healthcare. In this comprehensive overview, we share what it takes to become a medical assistant and provide even more reasons why it could be a great profession for you.
More specifically, we cover questions like these:
- What is a medical assistant?
- What kind of education do you need to be a medical assistant?
- How long do you have to go to school to be a medical assistant?
- What courses do you take to become a medical assistant?
- What is the difference between a CMA and a CNA?
- What are the benefits of being a medical assistant?
- How do you choose a medical assistant program that’s right for you?
- What is the NWHSU Earn While You Learn partnership 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 like these:
- Greeting patients and bringing them 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 perform various administrative tasks:
- 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, employers require that you complete a formal training program from an accredited institution 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 below for how long each of these options typically takes.)
Note that both programs offer the medical assisting diploma. Completion of the diploma program allows you the opportunity to start work as a medical assistant as well as take the certification exam. You can then continue working toward completion of the A.A.S. degree, if desired. (Note that most employers require medical assistants to be certified. See more on certification below.)
Check out this brief video on what it’s like to be a medical assistant student at NWHSU:
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 depend on your choice of a part-time vs. a full-time course schedule. Most of the medical assistant students at NWHSU hold a job and have other life obligations. We work with students to create a successful school/work/life balance.
Also, transferring credits can shorten your completion time.
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 urinalysis, microbiology, phlebotomy, hematology, 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.
Do you need to be certified to be a medical assistant?
Technically speaking, medical assistants do not require certification. However, many 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. To be eligible to take the 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, or CMA, often works alongside medical doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners in healthcare settings like clinics and medical offices. Duties can include rooming patients, taking vital signs, drawing blood and performing lab tests, administering injections, and assisting with medical procedures.
A certified nursing assistant, or CNA, typically works assisting nurses in settings like hospitals and nursing homes, providing hands-on care with bathing, dressing, feeding, and toileting.
A 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 CNA must obtain a special certificate or diploma, which can take from 4 to 12 weeks, and then pass a certification exam.
(For more detailed information, see What is the Difference Between a Medical Assistant vs. a CNA?)
What are the benefits of being a medical assistant?
1. Join a highly valued, fast-growing profession
Primary care clinics, urgent care clinics, 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—16 percent between 2021-2031—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…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 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, urgent care centers, and single-practitioner medical offices to large-scale clinics systems—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.
You could also focus on insurance coding, reception and scheduling, or electronic healthcare record-keeping. In addition, there are opportunities to advance to positions of leadership and management.
How do you choose a medical assistant program that’s right 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 draw blood, administer injections, perform basic lab duties, and carry out other clinical tasks.
Some programs leave all hands-on training for the final phase of your medical assistant education, where you’ll be interning in an actual clinical setting.
However, many medical assistant students say they find it extremely valuable to have this 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 instruction of hands-on skills for their students. You may want to find a program that provides a hands-on classrooms and laboratories where you can practice a variety of clinical and lab 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.
Also, to get a feel for the campus and life of a student, you can schedule a campus tour or view a virtual tour.
As you research programs, be sure you inquire about important topics like the following:
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?
Clinical partnerships. For example, through NWHSU’s Earn While You Learn partnership program, students may have opportunities to work in a clinical setting, receive a tuition discount, and have an accommodating work/school schedule. (Check out Earn While You Learn: Work in a Healthcare Setting While You Complete Your Medical Assistant Education.)
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 include all the other expenses involved in attending. For example, how will you get to school? And what will the expenses be related to that travel?
Also, keep factors like the following in mind:
Financial aid. 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.
If you would like to participate in the NWHSU Earn While You Learn partnership program mentioned above, you should ask about the potential financial benefits. (Learn more about the Earn While You Learn program here.)
Prerequisite courses and additional costs. When determining the total cost of a given program, be aware that some programs require completion of prerequisite courses before acceptance into a medical assistant program.
Make sure to consider the cost of those prerequisites when looking at the total expense. Note that NWHSU does not have any required prerequisite courses; the published cost includes all course credits.
Value vs. cost. 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 medical assisting 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.
(For more details on choosing a program, check out What to Look for in a Medical Assistant Program: 9 Essential Questions to Ask.)
Your next step: Reach out for more information
Researching the possibilities for your professional future is an exciting time! You’ve just learned a lot about how to become a medical assistant. If you’d like help putting it all in perspective, why not take the next step?
Start your exploration of medical assistant programs today! Reach out to NWHSU for personalized support on your path to becoming a medical assistant.