Be Well: Working in Wellness: Why Medical Assistants Are the Backbone of Health Care

Got empathy? A desire for fulfilling work? Looking for a way to get your foot in the door to help our taxed medical system? This in-demand role is a fast track to the front lines.

Be Well by Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

It’s a natural assumption that landing a job in health care requires years of study and training. While that’s true for numerous medical careers, there is a springboard into the field that allows people to make a big difference—and quickly. These practitioners have plenty of job opportunities to boot.

Certified medical assistants work on the front lines of health care, in clinics and medical offices big and small. They are often the first professionals people encounter on visits to the doctor. Medical assistants settle patients into exam rooms, facilitate appointments, and handle many clinical functions like taking vitals or giving immunizations.

Medical assisting can be a building block to other health care roles or stand alone as a fulfilling career, says Gail Spiegelhoff, program chair of the Medical Assisting Program at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) in Bloomington. It’s a versatile job that offers a multitude of options, from assisting clinicians with procedures to performing lab tests and administrative work.

“It is a vital role in health care. Medical assistants spend so much time with the patients and they are often the intermediary between patient and provider,” Spiegelhoff says. “They are really a jack-of-all-trades because they can do lab, administrative, and clinical work. So medical offices are using them more and more.”

A Short Runway to Work

The beauty of medical assisting is that students can complete their education in just one year and begin working. NWHSU offers two program options: a medical assisting diploma that takes three trimesters or an associate of applied science degree in medical assisting, which takes 20 months.

In both cases, students do the bulk of their classes online and come to campus once a week for labs or other hands-on training. This allows many aspiring medical assistants to balance school, work, and family.

Some students select the associate’s degree because they already have general education credits or plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree. In either case, graduates can sit for the exam from the American Association of Medical Assistants to become a certified medical assistant at the diploma stage. Employers typically don’t have a preference whether a medical assistant earned a diploma or associate’s degree because the core training is the same, Spiegelhoff says.

The Path to Patient Care is Paved with Promise

Medical assisting is a fast-growing field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is expected to grow 23 percent between 2018 and 2028, nearly five times the average growth rate for other jobs. Medical assistants in the Twin Cities with one year of experience earn between $34,000 to $43,000 annually. With 10 years of experience that jumps to $41,000 to $48,000 a year.

There is a huge demand for medical assistants throughout health care, giving graduates rich opportunities to find jobs. Medical assistants work in just about every medical specialty, including obstetrics, pediatrics, family practice, dermatology, gastroenterology, cardiology, and more. Many NWHSU graduates work at employers like Allina, Dermatology Consultants, and Children’s Minnesota clinics.

Others take on leadership positions as laboratory leaders, clinical managers, or medical administrators. That might involve managing a medical office, handling medical coding and billing, or documenting information in patients’ electronic medical records. Many find plenty of room for variety and advancement within the medical assisting profession. Others branch out into different health care jobs, such as nursing, ultrasound, medical lab technician, or education, Spiegelhoff says.

The breadth and depth of opportunities—and the impact that medical assistants have every day—make it a gratifying profession. That’s true for people just starting out in their careers and those wanting to do something new.

“I want people to know how rewarding this career is,” Spiegelhoff says. “There is a sense of satisfaction from helping patients in the hard times of their lives or celebrating with them in the good times. You form great relationships and do very important work. You can take pride in your job that you are really making a difference.”