Medical assistant standing in a ward

Healthcare thrives off teamwork. Everyone has a special role that ensures patients get the quality of care they need, whenever they need it. And medical assistants are a big part of healthcare teams throughout the United States.

A medical assistant helps doctors, nurses, and patients. They can work at a front desk, collect information, perform simple diagnostics screenings, and help educate patients.

If you are interested in an entry-level healthcare career that allows you to connect with people daily, this medical assisting guide is right for you.

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

Many people need clarification on medical assistants and certified nursing assistants (CNAs), but they are different. Each has their own scope of practice based on their training, education, and state.

For example, medical assistants can be certified or uncertified, but CNAs must always hold a certification.

A certified medical assistant is called a CMA. They have completed an accredited training program and passed the American Association for Medical Assistants’ Certified Medical Assistant Certification Exam.

CMAs perform both clinical and administrative duties. CNAs focus on helping registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) with patient care. 

  • CMAs tend to assist doctors with more technical work, like lab specimen management, preparing rooms, performing patient intake, and taking screening vitals

  • CNAs work directly under nurses and help patients with everyday tasks like bathing, feeding, and grooming

The work of a CNA tends to be more physically demanding than a medical assistant’s. Many medical assistants focus almost exclusively on administrative tasks, while CNAs always handle patient care duties.

What qualifications does a medical assistant need?

If you want to become a medical assistant, you must:

  • Be at least 18 years old

  • Have a high school diploma or GED

  • Complete an accredited medical assistant training program

Additional requirements for medical assistants that employers look for are:

  • Knowledge of medical terminology

  • Ability to perform EKGs

  • Ability to perform phlebotomy functions

  • Experience working with patients in a healthcare setting

  • Analytical skills

  • Strong organizational skills

  • Good time management

  • Excellent written and verbal communication

You can become a medical assistant in as few as two college semesters. Most medical assistants spend 9 months to 2 years completing their training program.

What work does a medical assistant do day to day?

Working as a medical assistant is different depending on your location. Hospital medical assistants will likely spend their days preparing patients for procedures, moving patients to different floors, taking them to and from diagnostics tests, and following a doctor’s or nurse’s orders.

In a physician’s office, most medical assistants help the doctor by performing patient intake, entering their information into an electronic medical records (EMR) system, and taking basic vitals. They also collect lab specimens, label them and ensure they’re ready for pickup, collect patient billing information, clean and prep exam rooms, stock inventories, and schedule tests and treatments.

Here is a list of some of the most common responsibilities of a medical assistant:

  • Greet patients and take them to their exam rooms

  • Take vitals (height, weight, blood pressure, pulse)

  • Prep patients for visits with a physician

  • Verify patients’ information in the EMR system

  • Manage inventory of supplies and medical equipment

  • Respond to patients’ requests by phone or email

  • Administer vaccines according to state regulations

  • Import and organize medical documents onto a computer

  • Request medical records from outside providers at the physician’s request

  • Maintain a safe, sterile environment following proper infection control measures

  • Educate, comfort, and support patients

Where do medical assistants work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most medical assistants work in physicians’ offices (58%), followed by hospitals (15%), outpatient care centers (9%), and chiropractors’ offices (4%). 

Medical assistants can also work in allergy clinics, women’s health centers, private practices, and pharmacies. Some even work in correctional facilities, nursing homes, and long-term rehabs.

What is it like to be a medical assistant?

Working as a medical assistant can be rewarding and energizing. You spend your days on your feet, actively moving from one patient to another and performing anything the doctor needs. You must be comfortable working in a fast-paced environment and always willing to respond to a patient or physician’s request.

Sometimes, medical assisting can be stressful. You may have a high patient volume, many administrative tasks piling up, or some uncooperative patients. Sometimes, you may be on the receiving end of a doctor’s or nurse’s frustrations.

You have to be capable of staying on task no matter what because hospitals and offices depend on a smooth flow to see their patients. It’s not uncommon for a physician to see over 30 patients daily. So, medical assistants must always be able to focus, stay motivated, and follow their duties without guidance.

How much do medical assistants make?

The national average salary for a medical assistant is $34,437 a year, which comes to about $16.56 an hour. The typical starting salary for a medical assistant is around $27,000. Salaries for medical assistants differ across the United States. In addition to location, factors like your experience, education, and schedule affect your earning potential.

Advantages and disadvantages of choosing a career as a medical assistant

Every job has its pros and cons. Medical assisting might be your dream job, but it’s still helpful to know some of the challenges you may face in this line of work. Our list of benefits and struggles of being a medical assistant can give you a complete picture of what to expect if you pursue this career.

Advantages of choosing a career as a medical assistant

Good job outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports medical assistant jobs will grow by 16% through 2031. This rate is much higher than the national average, so you can find many job opportunities as a medical assistant. Whether you want to work locally or move to another state, there will always be a demand for qualified and passionate medical assistants.

You can choose a specialty

Whether it’s pediatrics, allergies, or women’s health, finding jobs as a medical assistant in environments you love is easy. Even though you may not be a nurse, you can still specialize in different types of medicine and healthcare. 

Working with patients in an area you’re passionate about is rewarding. Gaining experience in a specialty also helps you find more job opportunities later.

Training is fast compared to other healthcare careers

Nurses must go to college for 2 to 4 years before working. In most cases, medical assistants can complete their training in less than 1 year. If you choose to take a medical assistant diploma program, you’ll spend 6 to 9 months learning everything you need to perform your job. You can go from no experience to working your first medical assistant job in 12 months.

And if you want to further your education, you can always return to school to complete your medical assistant associate’s degree.

You can become certified

Medical assistants can become certified by taking a certification exam. Certification makes you a more enticing job candidate and helps you demonstrate your skills to potential employers. Becoming a certified medical assistant can also help secure a higher salary.

Disadvantages of choosing a career as a medical assistant

You might have to work irregular hours

Many medical assistants work a 9-to-5 job, but they are often required to work evenings, weekends, and holidays, too. In hospitals, medical assistants may work the night shift. It all depends on the location and needs of the facility.

Difficult to grow

If you’re a medical assistant, you will not be able to get promoted to a CNA, RN, or any other role. If you want to further your career, you must go back to school and complete the appropriate training for your ideal job.

For this reason, it can be off-putting for some medical assistants, who don’t want to be stuck in the same job position for decades.

Risk of injury and exposure

Needlestick injuries aren’t unheard of for medical assistants, which can be a major health risk if the needle in question is used on a patient. You also risk exposure to pathogens through sick patients, the blood you draw, and the lab specimens you collect.

All medical assistants must be trained in infectious disease control and know how to safely handle bodily fluids to protect themselves and others.

How to become a medical assistant?

You can become a medical assistant by earning your high school diploma/GED and completing an accredited medical assistant training course or earning a medical assisting associate’s degree.

You can then go on to gain experience through internships or directly apply to entry-level medical assistant jobs. You can also take a certification exam to become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA).

Frequently asked questions about becoming a medical assistant

How long does it take to become a medical assistant?

It takes 9 months to 2 years to become a medical assistant. The length will depend on what type of education program you enroll in. The shortest programs award you a non-degree certificate, while a two-year course will give you an associate’s degree in medical assisting.

Is it hard to pass the medical assistant exam?

The CMA exam requires additional study and preparation. As long as you create a study guide beforehand, you should be able to pass without too much trouble. The CMA pass rate for first-time takers is around 62%. The more you prepare, the higher your chance of passing.

Why is being a medical assistant important?

Medical assistants help maintain safe and efficient office spaces for doctors and patients. They make it easier for nurses and physicians to do their jobs; they help patients promptly access the treatments they need. They keep medical records up-to-date and organized. With their help, healthcare facilities can maintain a healthy and responsive environment for all their patients.