If you have thought about becoming a medical assistant (MA) but don’t know anyone who works in that capacity, you may wonder what the job itself is like. Job descriptions actually vary quite a bit, based on geographic location, education, experience, and employer. This is great news because it means you can find a job that suits your interests and personal skills.
For an overview of what is required of a medical assistant, along with a look at a typical day, read on. You may find you are well suited to working in this rewarding profession.
General Qualities of a Medical Assistant
Medical assistants should have good people skills, whether they are dealing with patients in a clinical setting or other staff members behind the scenes. They should be able to provide support to people who are feeling ill and be able to communicate information clearly about tests and diagnostic procedures. They also need to be detail oriented, as you will see from the medical and administrative duties listed later in this article.
Medical assistants should of course be reliable, as patients and other clinicians depend on them to help the office or hospital department run smoothly. They should also have a cool head during times of stress, since there are likely to be difficult patients to contend with or possibly even life-and-death emergencies that occur.
Finally, a successful medical assistant has the ability to memorize large quantities of basic information about the human body and how it is treated for various disease states and should be resourceful enough to find information when it hasn’t been part of their training. Being able to think on your feet always comes in handy in any medical job.
How Does Training Work
Another good piece of news about becoming an MA is that there are various paths to obtaining a job in this field. The only requirement common to all of these paths is that you have a high school diploma or the equivalent, such as a GED (General Education Development credential), before you begin training.
You can study medical assisting for a diploma in this subject in any number of ways, either at a community college, technical school, or online program. This takes about a year—sometimes a little less—and is the most affordable route for students.
If you would like an Associate’s degree in medical assisting, you can attend a community college, university, or online program. This takes about two years and is more expensive, but it generally results in higher salaries, better job prospects, and more opportunities for advancement. If you already have some experience working in the medical field (either clinically or administratively), the one-year diploma plan may be the right one for you.
You might even find a medical assistant position right out of high school that provides on-the-job training, although these opportunities are becoming fewer as institutions attempt to standardize tiers of patient care somewhat by requiring conventional medical assistant training.
You can also obtain experience by serving in the military. Some positions take MA students straight out of college and provide further workplace training in a medical specialty. This is a great way to make a little more money and learn more about interesting fields like:
- obstetrics and gynecology
- travel medicine
If you choose to obtain a medical assistant diploma or Associate’s degree, make sure you find a program that is accredited. This means the school has been vetted for offering the right curriculum taught by qualified instructors. While it’s not required that you graduate from an accredited school, it’s something that would likely set you apart from a few other applicants when you’re ready to apply for a job.
There are two accrediting bodies for MA programs: the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Each of these organizations can tell you if a program in which you are considering enrollment meets their standards.
Accrediting agencies like to see that MA students are covering a curriculum that meets standards for excellent patient care. Accredited medical assistant programs offer clinical classes like:
- human anatomy and physiology
- phlebotomy (drawing blood)
- first aid
- medical terminology
- pharmaceutical principals
- sterilization procedures
- clinical and diagnostic procedures
Medical assistants can also cover administrative duties (see below), either as part of their job or as their entire job. Unless you sign up for an exclusively clinical MA program, you’ll also take classes in medical business administration. You’ll learn about basic accounting, health insurance practices, filing, scheduling, human resources, health information technology, and common legal issues relating to medicine, like confidentiality.
If you elect to take medical assisting classes for a diploma or degree, you will also need to do an externship or internship (sometimes this is mandated by your program). While the two words are sometimes used interchangeably, usually the former involves spending time during your coursework in real-life medical situations for more exposure.
The latter is more like a physician’s internship, where you have completed all your classes and you are functioning like a regular MA, albeit with a bit more supervision.
Some employers like to see certification or registration once you have completed a medical assisting program or after you have completed training on the job. For a reasonable fee, you can take an exam (based on what you learned in school or at work) with one of these four entities to earn this credential:
- American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA): certification for both clinical and administrative medical assistants.
- American Medical Technologists (AMT): registration for both clinical and administrative medical assistants.
- National Healthcareer Association (NHA): certification for clinical medical assistants only.
- National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT): national certification for both clinical and administrative medical assistants.
Medical Assistant Clinical Duties
Medical assistant clinical duties are somewhat variable depending on state regulations. Some states do not allow medical assistants to perform certain functions if they deem them as interpreting diagnostics rather than simply recording information. A good example of this is checking a patient’s pupils. The State of California, for example, sees this as a diagnostic procedure and therefore relegates it to other medical professionals instead of medical assistants.
Other aspects of pre-exam or pre-procedure patient care are, however, typically practiced by medical assistants. They usually take vital signs, like blood pressure, and obtain patients’ height and weight. They also take patients’ medical histories, make lists of their medications, and help them fill out necessary paperwork.
Other common duties include:
- explaining tests or procedures to patients
- preparing exam or procedure rooms
- sterilizing equipment
- phoning the pharmacy for a patient’s prescriptions
- maintaining emergency gear and “crash carts”
- handling specimens for laboratory testing
- assisting physicians, nurse practitioners, or physician assistants with exams, diagnostic tests, and procedures
- drawing blood (some MAs do this all day, every day, or rotate days with other MAs)
- giving immunizations
Administrative Duties for Medical Assistants
If you have an interest in healthcare but are a bit squeamish about dealing with bodily fluids every day or don’t have the stamina required to be on your feet all day, you may find you’d like to work as an administrative medical assistant.
You may also take a job that combines both clinical and administrative medical assisting, common with small private practices.
Typical administrative medical assistant duties include:
- opening and closing the office
- scheduling appointments
- greeting patients/reception
- filing charts and other paperwork
- handling insurance claims and processing documents
- ordering medical and office supplies
- pulling and preparing charts for appointments
- general office duties (e.g., making coffee, answering the phone, managing online correspondence, accounting, etc.)
Some medical assistants like to go on to obtain a certification in medical coding and billing. This allows them to either perform these jobs as part of their medical assistant work or as a full-time job (sometimes even working from home).
Whenever a test or procedure is performed, an associated ICD code must accompany it on any insurance paperwork or billing, which explains why it was completed. For example, in order for an insurance company to pay for a cardiac stress test, the coder would enter the respective codes for chest pain or shortness of breath, which were the reasons why the test was ordered.
Like medical assistants, medical coders are also in high demand right now, and many doctors offices like medical assistants who can also do coding.
A Typical Schedule
A regular work day in the life of a medical assistant might look something like this:
8:00 am: Open the general practice clinic
8:00-9:00: Prepare the office for patient visits. This may require that you check messages, update the appointment schedule, read emails, and prepare exam rooms.
9:00-12:00 pm: Assist physician with patient exams. This may require you to greet patients at reception, take height and weight measurements, obtain vital signs and patient histories (including listing medications), direct patients to facilities to give urine or blood samples, give patients exam gowns, assist the doctor during patient exams (getting equipment as needed, giving immunizations, applying monitors, etc.), make required notations in charts or insurance paperwork for physician and billing specialist, call the pharmacy as needed to give patient prescription information on behalf of the physician, and take or send specimens to the laboratory.
12:00-1:00: Lunch break
1:00-2:00: Sterilize equipment and order supplies
3:00-4:00: Pull charts for the next day’s appointments and make reminder calls to patients.
4:00-4:30: Tidy exam rooms and restock supplies
4:30-5:00: File/pass on day’s charts and disseminate paperwork for physician, coder, receptionist, etc.
5:00: Close the office
As you can see, a medical assistant’s day has a lot of variety, and it’s common for MAs to feel like their days fly by. Even those who perform administrative tasks all day long find the time goes by quickly. If you become a medical assistant, there’s one thing to know for sure: you’ll rarely be bored!
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