Are you interested in becoming a medical assistant? Congratulations, this is a growing field with great potential for employment and fulfillment over the next ten years, at least, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
If you want to be competitive in the world of medical assisting, in order to command the highest salaries and find the best jobs, you’ll want to go to a top school. It might surprise you to learn that what qualifies as the “best” medical assistant school differs for every student.
Nevertheless, here is some information about how to train to be a medical assistant and how to find the best program that truly fits your needs.
Medical Assistant Job Duties
A medical assistant’s job description can vary widely between one workplace and another. When examining pathways to becoming an MA (which we’ll certainly dive into later in this article), think about what types of duties would appeal most to you, so you can match your training to your ideal job description.
You may have seen a medical assistant at your doctor’s office helping with your exam or drawing blood for the lab. These are common tasks for most clinical medical assistants.
- sterilize equipment and rooms
- give immunizations
- call prescriptions into the pharmacy on behalf of the doctor
- take specimens to the lab for testing
- assist with treatments and diagnostic tests
Medical assistants work not only in general practice clinics but with specialty physicians in outpatient and inpatient settings. You can find medical assistant positions in pediatrics, cardiology, dermatology, and orthopedics, to name just a few specialties.
In addition to clinical work, medical assistants can also perform numerous administrative tasks for which they have been specially trained. (Sometimes they are referred to as a “medical administrative assistant,” even though they have medical assistant credentials.) You might find yourself doing any of the following as all or part of your duties:
- scheduling appointments
- manning the reception desk
- answering the phone
- filing medical records
- using electronic medical record software
- ordering supplies
- processing insurance paperwork
- pulling and preparing charts or medication lists for appointments
- opening and closing the office
In addition to the different pathways discussed in the next section, you can choose to study all aspects of medical assisting (clinical and administrative), or you can elect to only study one of the two.
While it may increase your chances of finding a job by being more versatile, if you know you only want to do hands-on patient care, you don’t need to spend a lot of time beyond the minimum studying administrative aspects of the field.
Conversely, if you like the idea of helping a physician’s office run more smoothly behind the front desk, you may decide to become an administrative medical assistant, for which there are special programs that focus more on non-clinical duties.
Potential Pathways to Becoming a Medical Assistant
There are several pathways to becoming a medical assistant, and there are currently no state regulations mandating one way over the other. In fact, you can occasionally obtain a medical assistant position with no formal training by finding a job with a physician that is willing to train you at the workplace.
Like any other job, all you would need in this instance is to have a high school diploma (or the equivalent) and have passed your immunization screening and criminal background check.
Most medical assistants, however, find it easier to find jobs once they have completed a college training program. You can find these programs at a variety of institutions, such as universities, community colleges, technical schools, and even online.
College training programs for medical assisting are usually one of two types. You can do a course of about one year for a diploma in medical assisting, or you can spend two years studying for an Associate’s degree. While the former option is faster and less expensive, you may have the best luck finding a job with an Associate’s degree. It’s a good idea to look at the jobs in your area when seeking a medical assisting curriculum to see if employers in your region have a preference for one type of program or another.
Pima Medical Institute is often mentioned as a top choice for 1-year programs by students in the Rockies, Texas, and the Southwest. Students sit for the AAMA certification exam after finishing their program, and Pima is an accredited school, meaning the curriculum meets national standards for medical assisting knowledge and technical skills.
Globe University and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College are top picks in the Upper Midwest, the former offering a two-year training track and the latter a one-year program. Top choices for online training include Kaplan University, Herzing University, US Career Institute, and Kaiser University.
Whichever type of program you pick, you will need to complete an externship or internship at the end before you can start working (more on this below). This is so you can get some hands-on experience under supervision before you start working with patients more independently.
You will also probably want to take a certification test to become certified or registered as a medical assistant, which many employers today request. At present, there are four entities that offer this credential:
- American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA): certification for clinical and administrative medical assistants.
- National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT): national certification for clinical and administrative medical assistants.
- National Healthcareer Association (NHA): certification solely for clinical medical assistants.
- American Medical Technologists (AMT): registration for clinical and administrative medical assistants.
To qualify for certification or registration, you need to pay a fee to the appropriate agency and pass an exam on medical assisting knowledge and procedures, similar to what many other healthcare professionals do for their credentials.
Your Learning Style
When looking for a suitable medical assisting curriculum, first ask yourself, “What is my learning style?” Do you work well on your own, or do you need homework assignments and regular classes to keep you on task? Self-starters who don’t need a lot of supervision tend to do better with online classes than those who need more supervision.
What about how fast you learn? Do you typically need extra time to complete assignments in school, or do you finish early and get bored waiting for everyone else? Both of these learning styles point to self-paced remote study, versus pacing with a conventional class. Remember, too, that if you don’t have a background in science or healthcare, you may need extra time to get up to speed with the material—another good reason to opt for online programs.
There are bound to be some practicalities that need to be considered when enrolling in a program. The first for most students is budget. A school you can scarcely afford is going to make you feel stressed and perhaps push you to take a job that’s less enjoyable for you just because it pays more. On the other hand, if you can weather the higher cost of a pricier school or a longer Associate’s degree, you may be able to transfer that to a higher salary and better pick of jobs down the line.
Don’t forget about ancillary expenses either. You may have to pay for childcare, parking, gas, meals, and the like if you attend a traditional school, or you may have to forgo earnings at your current job if you have to give up shifts to attend classes. Some medical assistant students manage to keep a lot of balls in the air during school, while others feel it best to take an online curriculum and study when the kids are asleep or after their nine-to-five jobs end for the day.
Your location also plays a part in your choice of school. If you live in a large urban area, you may have your choice of a dozen different programs nearby. However, if you live in a rural spot, where the closest town is more of a drive, you may be limited to one or two conventional programs and online courses.
Your Career Goals
Your career goals should be considered too when choosing the best medical assistant program for you. As mentioned above, you can work as an administrative medical assistant or a clinical medical assistant or both. If you’re not sure, a curriculum that allows equal training in both is probably your best bet.
Are you already thinking about working as a medical assistant in a specialty like geriatrics or pulmonology? If so, you probably want to enroll in a two-year Associate’s degree program to compete with other job candidates for those more demanding areas of medicine. The better medical assistant programs are well connected to prestigious healthcare institutions. They can help you find an internship that also supports your desire to work in a specific medical area. Some programs will also track you towards your certification as part of the program, helping you sign up and study for your exam.
Are you thinking about eventually pursuing a career beyond medical assisting, such as nursing or physical therapy? You will need a Bachelor’s degree for these fields and many others. If you get your Associate’s degree, you will be able to transfer many of your credits to a Bachelor’s degree and be about halfway there by the time you finish your MA program.
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