Medical assistant standing in a hospital corridor

What are the steps to becoming a medical assistant?

Medical assistants help physicians and nurses in hospitals by performing administrative duties. They help maintain a safe clinical environment and make it easier for patients to access care quickly. Being a medical assistant could be the right job for you if you want to lend a helping hand to patients and healthcare professionals.

Medical assistants are there to provide support however it's needed through administrative and clinical tasks.

In our guide, we’ve outlined all the steps for how to become a certified medical assistant (CMA). Following this career roadmap, you can learn everything you need to complete your education and find medical assistant jobs near you in the future.

What are the steps to becoming a medical assistant?

Complete an accredited medical assistant program

The first step for any aspiring medical assistant is to learn the fundamentals of their field. Medical assistants must know basic anatomy, medical terminology, pharmacology, and more.

If you want to become a medical assistant, look for a program that’s accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). These are the only two accrediting bodies for medical assistants recognized by the American Association for Medical Assistants (AAMA).

Medical assistant programs usually take anywhere from 16 weeks to 2 years. It depends on the school and the scope of the program. Minimum training requirements for medical assistants also vary throughout the country; the AAMA outlines scope-of-practice laws by state.

Gain medical assistant experience via internships

Many jobs for medical assistants require 1 to 2 years of experience. Completing a medical assistant internship is the best way to build your resume. Internships can be full-time or part-time, paid or unpaid, and take place in various healthcare settings, like hospitals, outpatient care centers, or nursing homes.

If you have a particular area of interest as a medical assistant, look for internships that help you gain experience working with patients in that field. 

Another reason why internships are so valuable is that they give you a chance to gain hands-on experience with the support of a professional network. You’ll work directly beneath nurses and physicians and grow more confident interacting with patients. 

Over time, you can earn types of certification, such as becoming a certified medical assistant (CMA).

Gain certification as a certified medical assistant (CMA)

You can apply to take the CMA certification exam through the AAMA. You must completethe exam within 12 months of graduating from an accredited program or 30 days before completing your education.

Certification is a great way to show employers how dedicated you are to your career. It also helps distinguish you from other candidates as a qualified medical assistant. Holding a CMA credential shows potential employers that you have the skills they’re looking for and you can be trusted to perform the role to their needs and expectations.

Becoming a certified medical assistant can also set you up for a pay raise! Certified medical assistants tend to earn higher salaries. Also, being a CMA can allow you to work in other states more easily.

Can you become a medical assistant online?

Yes! There are plenty of options to help you become a medical assistant online. Community colleges and vocational schools are the best places to search. If you’re already working or caring for a family, you can still become a medical assistant without interrupting your daily routine.

However, because of the job’s nature, you will have to complete in-person practicums at an approved location near you. Medical assistant practicums help you put what you’ve studied into practice and develop experience working in real healthcare offices.

What is the difference between a certified medical assistant (CMA) and a certified nursing assistant (CNA)?

CMAs provide less direct patient care, and the scope of their work tends to be more administrative than clinical. On the other hand, CNAs work directly under registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and help them perform various clinical tasks.

A CMA can monitor a patient’s vitals, and they may be able to administer some medications by mouth, under the tongue, on the skin, or through the vagina or rectum. In some states and locations, they may also be allowed to administer subcutaneous (under the skin) and intradermal (under the epidermis) injections.

CNAs have greater clinical abilities and can assist RNs with certain procedures that a CMA cannot. CMAs and CNAs have similar salaries. The average certified medical assistant makes $34,900 annually, and a certified nursing assistant makes around $32,597.

What positions can you progress to from being a medical assistant?

Medical assistants can progress their careers by choosing to become licensed practical nurses (LPN), certified nursing assistant (CNAs), or registered nurses (RN). 

Being an RN will give a medical assistant the greatest level of flexibility and responsibility regarding patient care.

If you prefer more administrative and supportive roles, then working as a CNA or LPN could be the right fit for you.

If you like working in healthcare administration, you could also look into becoming a nurse administrator. These RNs have spent time gaining significant expertise in their field; they use their own background in nursing to help hospitals and other facilities manage their nursing staff.

Do your medical assistant exam qualifications expire?

Yes, CMA certification expires, and you’ll have to recertify every 5 years. There are two ways to recertify your CMA certification through the AAMA:

  • By exam. You can retake the certified medical assistant exam by completing an application form and paying an enrollment fee.

  • By continued education. You can take continued education courses, then apply for renewal online or by mail.

If you decide to take continuing education courses, you’ll have to choose ones approved by the AAMA. These are the training materials that will count toward your CMA renewal.

How much do medical assistants make?

The average medical assistant salary is around $34,900, or $16.78 an hour (, August 2022). Factors like your education, experience, and location will affect how much you can make as a medical assistant.

How long does it take to become a medical assistant?

Becoming a medical assistant takes anywhere from 4 months to 2 years. It depends on whether you complete a training program or earn an associate’s degree. You may also have to spend several months to a year interning to get experience as a medical assistant before you qualify for more entry-level jobs.

Most employers look for certified candidates with experience working in a healthcare setting.

FAQs about becoming a medical assistant

What is the hardest thing about being a medical assistant?

Healthcare can be stressful, and medical assistants can take on some of the tasks that nurses and physicians are too busy to do. 

This may include preparing patients, cleaning rooms, and doing patient intake in a hospital. You may also need to transport patients to other parts of the hospital for imaging scans, physical therapy, or even outside to get some fresh air.

It can become overwhelming during busy periods or fast-paced settings with many tasks. Likewise, working with difficult patients can be a challenge. 

Not everyone is receptive to healthcare, or they may refuse to be tended to by anyone but an RN. For this reason, it's important not to take their actions or words to heart. They may be afraid, in pain, and just want to feel better. 

What are the duties of a medical assistant in a hospital?

Medical assistants perform many jobs in hospitals, which may include:

  • Moving patients to different floors

  • Preparing patients’ rooms

  • Performing patient intake

  • Taking basic vitals

  • Collecting laboratory specimens

  • Calling in prescriptions to pharmacies

  • Disinfecting and cleaning medical equipment

  • Telling patients a doctor’s or nurse’s instructions

The exact duties you perform will vary. In hospitals, outpatient care centers, and physician’s offices, the role of a medical assistant changes based on the needs of patients and healthcare professionals.

Is being a medical assistant harder than nursing?

Medical assisting is easier than nursing; you have far less clinical responsibility, and while you may get stressed on the job, there is no role in direct patient care plans for you to worry about. You have to be available to assist when you’re needed, but you don’t have to treat patients’ conditions directly. 

Their care is overseen by attending physicians and RNs. Medical assistants are there to assist their superiors in not only day-to-day tasks but also in certain emergency situations. 

Stress and job difficulty depend on where you choose to work; a physician's office or family care practice is usually less hectic than working in the hospital. 

What comes after a medical assistant?

Depending on your interests, working as a medical assistant can help you become a healthcare administrator, healthcare manager, or nurse in the future. 

Healthcare administrative jobs are more office-based, but nurses provide clinical care to patients. You can use your time working in healthcare as an MA to decide which path most appeals to you.