Medical assistants complete administrative and clinical tasks in the offices of physicians, podiatrists, chiropractors, and other health practitioners. Their duties vary with the location, specialty, and size of the practice.                   

Duties

Medical assistants typically do the following:

  • Take and record patient history and personal information
  • Measure vital signs
  • Help the physician with patient examinations
  • Give patients injections as directed by the physician
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Prepare blood for laboratory tests

Medical assistants take and record patients’ personal information. They must be able to keep that information confidential and discuss it only with other medical personnel who are involved in treating the patient.

Electronic health records (EHRs) are changing medical assistants' jobs. More and more physicians are adopting EHRs, moving all their patient information online. Assistants need to learn the EHR software that their office uses.

Medical assistants should not be confused with physician assistants, who examine, diagnose, and treat patients under a physician's supervision.

In larger practices or hospitals, medical assistants may specialize in either administrative or clinical work.

Administrative medical assistants often fill out insurance forms or code patients’ medical information. They often answer telephones and schedule patient appointments. Assistants may work closely with hospital administrators and laboratory services. Some assistants buy and store supplies and equipment for the office.

Clinical medical assistants have different duties, depending on the state where they work. They may do basic laboratory tests, dispose of contaminated supplies, and sterilize medical instruments. They may have additional responsibilities, such as instructing patients about medication or special diets, preparing patients for x rays, removing stitches, drawing blood, or changing dressings.

Some medical assistants specialize according to the type of medical office where they work. The following are examples of specialized medical assistants:

Ophthalmic medical assistants and optometric assistants help ophthalmologists and optometrists, respectively, provide eye care. They show patients how to insert, remove, and care for contact lenses. Ophthalmic medical assistants also may help an ophthalmologist in surgery.

Podiatric medical assistants work closely with podiatrists (foot doctors). They may make castings of feet, expose and develop x rays, and help podiatrists in surgery.

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Work Environment

Medical assistants held about 560,800 jobs in 2012. Most of these assistants work in physicians’ offices and other healthcare facilities. In 2012, more than half of all medical assistants worked in physicians’ offices.

Work Schedules

Most medical assistants work full time. Some work evenings or weekends to cover shifts in medical facilities that are always open.

Education and Training

Most medical assistants have postsecondary education such as a certificate. Others enter the occupation with a high school diploma and learn through on-the-job training.

Education

High school students interested in a career as a medical assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy.

Medical assistants typically graduate from postsecondary education programs, and employers may prefer to hire assistants who have completed these programs. Programs for medical assisting are available from community colleges, vocational schools, technical schools, and universities and take about 1 year to complete. These programs usually lead to a certificate or diploma. Some community and junior colleges offer 2-year programs that lead to an associate’s degree. All programs have classroom and laboratory portions that include lessons in anatomy and medical terminology.

Some medical assistants have a high school diploma or equivalent and learn their duties on the job.

There are no formal educational requirements for becoming a medical assistant in most states. Some states require assistants to graduate from an accredited program, pass an exam, or both to do advanced tasks, such as taking x rays and giving injections.

Training

Medical assistants who do not have postsecondary education learn their skills through on-the-job training. Physicians or other medical assistants may teach a new assistant medical terminology, the names of the instruments, how to do daily tasks, how to interact with patients, and other tasks that help keep an office running smoothly. Medical assistants also learn how to code both paper and electronic health records and how to record patient information. It can take several months for an assistant to complete training, depending on the facility.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Medical assistants are not required to be certified. However, employers prefer to hire certified assistants.

Several organizations offer certification. Some require the assistant to pass an exam, and others require graduation from an accredited program. In most cases, an applicant must be at least 18 years old before applying for certification.

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies, part of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, accredits five certifications for medical assistants:

Personality and Interests

Medical assistants typically have an interest in the Building, Helping and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Helping or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a medical assistant, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Medical assistants should also possess the following specific qualities:

Analytical skills. Medical assistants must be able to understand and follow medical charts and diagnoses. They may be required to code a patient’s medical records for billing purposes.

Detail oriented. Medical assistants need to be precise when taking vital signs or recording patient information. Physicians and insurance companies rely on accurate records.

Interpersonal skills. Medical assistants need to be able to discuss patient information with other medical personnel, such as physicians. They often interact with patients who may be in pain or in distress, so they need to be able to act in a calm and professional manner.

Technical skills. Medical assistants should be able to use basic clinical instruments so they can take a patient’s vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure.

Pay

The median annual wage for medical assistants was $29,370 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $21,080, and the top 10 percent earned more than $41,570.

Most medical assistants work full time. Some work evenings or weekends to cover shifts in medical facilities that are always open.

Job Outlook

Employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. The growth of the aging baby-boom population will continue to spur demand for preventive medical services, which are often provided by physicians. As their practices expand, physicians will hire more assistants to perform routine administrative and clinical duties, allowing the physicians to see more patients.

An increasing number of group practices, clinics, and other healthcare facilities need support workers, particularly medical assistants, to do both administrative and clinical duties. Medical assistants work mostly in primary care, a steadily growing sector of the healthcare industry. In addition, federal health legislation will expand the number of patients who have access to health insurance, increasing patient access to medical care.

Additional demand also is expected because of new and changing tasks for medical assistants as part of the medical team. As more and more physicians’ practices switch to electronic health records (EHRs), medical assistants’ job responsibilities will continue to change. Assistants will need to become familiar with EHR computer software, including maintaining EHR security and analyzing electronic data, to improve healthcare information.                                   

Job Prospects

Medical assistants who earn certification may have better job prospects.

FAQ

Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. We recommend the Career Personality Profiler assessment ($29), the Holland Code assessment ($19), or the Photo Career Quiz (free).