How to Become a Certified Medical Assistant

If you would like to work in the medical world, but aren’t quite sure the role of doctor or nurse is right for you, beginning a career as a medical assistant may be the right move. Medical assistant is one of the fastest growing careers in the healthcare field right now, and gives you the opportunity to help heal people and facilitate the roles of physicians and nurses.

Of course, before starting any new program, you want to know more about what the career is like, what programs you need to attend before beginning, how licensure and certification work, and more. We’ll cover all of that in this article, so sit down somewhere quiet and get ready to learn all about the potential career that might be waiting for you.

What Is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants help physicians in hospitals, clinics, public health facilities and other establishments. Typically they perform administrative services to support doctors and help ensure that clinics and other healthcare facilities run smoothly. They work in three main capacities:

  • Administrative roles: Answering phones, scheduling appointments, updating patient information systems, staffing the front desk and taking patient payments, for instance
  • Clerical roles: Filing paperwork, getting files for physicians or nurses, entering data, sending and receiving faxes, and more
  • Clinical roles: Prepping exam rooms, administering sample tests, sterilizing instruments, disposing of hazardous materials and other tasks related to the clinical side of the practice

Medical assistants may also work in specialized roles, enabling them to work more closely with patients and physicians and to provide a higher level of support services to the rest of the medical staff. In order to work in a specialized capacity, it’s necessary to earn a certification.

Some specialties focus on populations, such as family medicine, geriatrics, pediatrics or OB/GYN. Others focus on particular fields of medicine, such as cardiology, urology, oncology or endocrinology. And others are even more highly specialized, such as transplantation surgery. If you have an interest in a particular field of medicine, it’s worth asking a program director at the school you’re interested in what the best approach might be to enable you to work in that field.

Why Become a Medical Assistant?

As discussed above, medical assistant is one of the fastest growing roles in the healthcare profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical assistant jobs will grow at a rate of 23 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than average. In part this is due to the fact that the Baby Boomer generation is aging rapidly, and the healthcare industry is trying to keep pace. Medical assistants will be desired in hospitals, nursing homes and elderly care facilities for years to come.

In particular, there is an explosion of available jobs in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, Illinois and several other states on the East Coast and in the Northeast. However, you should keep in mind that the states with the most jobs are not necessarily the states that pay the best. The top five best-paying states, in fact, don’t coincide with the greatest number of jobs at all; they are D.C., Alaska, Massachusetts, Washington and Minnesota.

For an entry-level profession, though, medical assistants make very good money in any state. On average, they make $30,590 per year, which equates to roughly $14.71 per hour if you work full time. Considering you don’t need to earn a bachelor’s degree to be hired in this role, it’s a very good return on investment. Now let’s turn our attention to exactly what type of schooling you do need.

What Program(s) Should You Enroll In?

To work as a medical assistant, you usually need a postsecondary non-degree award. This means that in order to be admitted to the program, you must have completed high school, but do not need to have any additional college education.

You can earn this award in one of two main ways: at a community college or through an online program. While a community college offers more face time with professors and a more lab-based, hands-on approach to learning, online classes are much more flexible. When you learn and submit your work online, you can schedule your schooling around jobs, children and other duties much more effectively. In either case, you will need to complete a clinical period afterward to give you the experience you need to work in a healthcare setting, so don’t worry about “missing out” on this type of experience if you take online classes.

Typically the program itself takes about one year, and results in a certification if the student passes the certifying exam. While the exact amount of time will depend on what program you choose, whether you attend full- or part-time, and whether or not you earn a specialty that might require additional coursework, it is almost never more than two years, enabling you to earn your award and begin working relatively quickly.

If you choose to, you may also earn an associate’s degree. This can enable you to earn more money and work in a more highly specialized role in a hospital, clinic, physician’s office or other healthcare setting. These programs may take 18-24 months rather than the year that simply earning a certification takes.

There is one exception to the need to earn a non-degree award, and that is if you want to work in a purely clerical role. In that case, providing you still have your high school diploma, you may be able to enter the field and learn through on-the-job training. To do so, you’ll have to talk to several physicians and see if they’re willing to provide on-the-job training.

Once you have enough experience under your belt, you may be able to work in a more administrative or clinical role. If you want to work in a specialized field of medicine, however, it will still be necessary to earn a certification in that role.

How Do I Find a Program?

Finding the right medical assistant program may not be as hard as you think. You have a number of options when searching for the right course of training for you. You can either visit a community college in your area and ask them about medical assistant programs – most of them will offer them – or you can search online for programs either at brick-and-mortar institutions or online universities. Be sure to pay attention to what in-person elements will be necessary if you do take classes online, such as the clinical period, discussed below.

Do You Need to Do Clinical Work?

Yes. The clinical element, sometimes referred to as an externship, is a period of time during which you work in a healthcare setting gaining real-world experience that will help you perform your job more effectively and be more inviting to a potential employer.

While exact times may vary from program to program or state to state, a typical length of time for a practicum is 20 hours in a campus setting and 160 hours in a healthcare setting. During the practicum, the student will learn to put their newly acquired skills to work. This may include filing paperwork, performing lab tests, prepping rooms, answering questions about pharmaceuticals, recording tests and other common roles that medical assistants will fill when actually working.

The practicum is worth credit hours. Typically it is the equivalent of one course, or 4 credits, for the entire 160-hour practicum, which is four weeks if you attend full time.

The good news is you do not have to go out and find this practicum work on your own. Your school program usually has connections with a variety of healthcare facilities that are willing to take students on and give them the on-the-job training they need to meet their requirements and get hired as an employee. Before you can do that, though, you need to get certified.

How Do You Get Certified?

Certification is a crucial part of becoming a medical assistant. It tells potential employers that you have met the minimum educational requirements needed to perform the role, and that you understand the concepts needed to do your job well.

As the American Association of Medical Assistants explains, “The CMA Exam is a rigorous exam that requires a thorough, broad, and current understanding of health care delivery” and “consists of 200 multiple-choice questions administered in four 40-minute segments.” This is only the exam administered by the AAMA, however; there are many certifying bodies, and you can talk to your program leaders about which one might be the best for you.

Whichever exam you take, you will need to check the eligibility requirements for the exam and ensure you’ve met them, apply and study for the exam, pass the exam and then ensure you submit all necessary paperwork to the certifying body to receive your official certification.

Note that while many other healthcare professionals do need a license to work, medical assistants do not. The certification is sufficient to be hired in a range of healthcare settings.

What’s the Job Like?

Most certified medical assistants find their roles very fulfilling and satisfying … and certainly not boring. Typically, assistants work 40 hours a week, though part-time positions are available if you prefer to work less. Because medical assistants fill a largely administrative role in most facilities, it’s unusual that they have to work longer hours, or work weekends or evenings. That’s one of the perks of the job.

A medical assistant may have a range of daily tasks, including booking appointments, answering the phones, responding to questions or concerns, prepping examination rooms and sterilizing equipment. They may also record information and test results, interview patients to get basic information, track vitals, collect specimens (such as saliva or urine) and administer medication (note, however, that this last role only occurs with patient supervision). Depending on the medical assistants’ exact role and specialty, they may perform more or fewer of these duties.

Applying for Jobs

Before deciding which jobs to apply for, there are several factors to take into account. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Location: Where you work is very important to your long-term happiness and overall satisfaction. This includes what state you choose to work in, keeping in mind that each state has its own requirements for working there.
  • Type of facility: The type of facility you will be happy in will depend on your preferences. Schools, correctional facilities, hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and public health offices all have roles, so apply to the ones that best fit your personality.
  • Long-term job prospects: Advancement potential is important, so ask what your prospects will be over the long term before accepting a position.
  • Family and friends: Being near family and friends is also important, so make sure you will be close enough to them that you won’t feel isolated or start to regret your job choices.

And that’s it. Submit an application with a resume and proof of your certification at any facility you wish to work at, then choose between the ones that offer you a job. Congratulations … you’re on your way!

Getting Started

If the above information sounds like a lot to deal with, don’t stress. When facing any life change, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the tasks you have to check off your list, but you can reduce stress and make life more manageable by making a schedule and sticking to it. A rough schedule should include:

  • Talking to the school(s) of your choice before applying
  • Applying to programs
  • Choosing your specialization
  • Completing clinical work
  • Earning your license and certifications
  • Applying for positions at hospitals, clinics or other facilities

Once you have a schedule, you can begin checking tasks off one by one over the next year or two, which makes the whole process less daunting. If you have further questions or would like to find out more about a career as a medical assistant, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We would love to help you find the career path that’s right for you, so just let us know how we can help.

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Written by Robert Sanchez
Robert Sanchez is's Chief Editorialist. Robert Sanchez has over 10 years experience in the Healthcare field and more recently has become an avid writer advising on career and job topics in this exciting field.

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