Healthcare Degree Search
Medical assistants are essential allied health professionals who are cross-trained in clinical and clerical duties. They are employed primarily in medical clinics, although they can also be found in hospitals, inpatient treatment centers, outpatient clinics, and diagnostic laboratories. While duties can vary based on place of employment, day-to-day tasks for medical assistants can include answering the phone, scheduling appointments, taking patient’s vital signs, assisting physicians with medical examinations, maintaining patient records, assisting with billings, and preparing samples for lab tests.
The barrier to entry to medical assisting is relatively low, with only a certificate or associate’s degree required in most cases. While professionals can enter this career with on-the-job training, completing some education is an industry standard. In addition to schooling, most medical assistants pursue certification. Earning certification signals to employers that the job applicant has a minimum level of expertise and knowledge in this field. Certification can also result in higher pay and better opportunities for advancement.
So how do medical assistants get certified? The process is relatively straightforward and involves completing schooling or work experience and sitting for a certification exam. The detailed guide below outlines the steps necessary to earn certification. Below are the top certifying bodies, their eligibility requirements, and what each exam entails.
Step-by-Step Guide To Become a Certified Medical Assistant
Step One: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)
Medical assistants must complete high school or obtain a GED. Not only do employers require proof of a high school diploma or GED, but this is also a requirement for entry into many medical assistant training programs. Having either a diploma or GED demonstrates a minimum level of education as well as a dedication to completing a course of study. Students who wish to pursue a medical assisting career should focus on classes such as math, biology, anatomy, business, and psychology.
Prospective medical assistants should consider working in a medical clinic while still in high school to gain valuable hands-on experience and decide if this is the career for them.
Step Two: Complete a Medical Assistant Training Program (One to Two Years)
Most medical assistant certification agencies require aspiring medical assistants to complete a medical assistant training program. These programs vary in length from one to two years, depending on the type of degree or certificate earned. Coursework students complete in these programs include medical terminology, laboratory techniques, pharmacology, insurance processing, patient relations, and office practices.
Students should ensure the program they attend is accredited by a body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), as this is required by many of the certification entities. Accreditation also ensures that the program meets minimum standards of coursework, quality of faculty, and facilities available to students.
Step Three: Obtain Work Experience (Timeline Varies)
It may be necessary for some certifications to have completed a practicum or receive on-the-job training. For some certifications, eligibility may be obtained through work experience alone, with no formal education needed.
Aspiring professionals in this field can apply to work in medical clinics, hospitals, long term care centers, or laboratories with the understanding that they are receiving training to obtain certification in the future. This work experience should be carefully documented as it will need to be submitted to verify eligibility to sit for the certification exam.
Step Four: Obtain Certification
Once all the required education and work experience has been completed, aspiring medical assistants can obtain their certification. The process for certification varies based on the certifying agency. Detailed information about eligibility, the exam, and renewal requirements for each of the top certification agencies can be found below.
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
AAMA (CMA) Eligibility
Candidates for the CMA certification must graduate from a Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) accredited medical assistant program. Students must also complete an on-site work practicum as part of their program.
AAMA (CMA) Exam
The CMA exam consists of 180 scored and 20 unscored multiple-choice questions divided into four 40-minute segments. It costs between $125 to $250 to sit for this exam. The three test areas are:
- General topics: psychology, communication, professionalism, medical laws, ethics, risk management, and medical terminology
- Administrative topics: reception, patient navigator/advocate, medical business practices, establish patient medical records, scheduling appointments, and medical finances
- Clinical topics: anatomy and physiology, infection control patient intake, care documentation, patient preparation, assisting providers, nutrition, collecting and processing of specimens, diagnostic testing, pharmacology, emergency management, and basic first aid
To prepare for this exam, the AAMA offers online practice exams or review courses at either an accredited medical assistant program or through one of the AAMA chapters.
AAMA (CMA) Renewal
CMA certification holders must renew their certification every 60 months. Recertification can be completed either through testing or through continuing education. To recertify by exam, candidates simply retake the CMA exam.
To recertify through continuing education, candidates must earn 60 recertification points, of which 10 points must be in clinical, 10 points in administrative, 10 points in general, and 30 points in any combination of the first three categories.
Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists (AMT)
AMT (RMA) Eligibility
To be eligible to sit for the RMA exam, candidates must meet one of the following four eligibility requirements:
- Complete (or be scheduled to complete) a medical assistant education program accredited by the US Department of Education, CHEA, or a program approved by the AMT Board of Directors. The program must be at least 720 hours of instruction with a 160-hour externship
- Complete (or be scheduled to complete) a medical assistant education program through the United States Armed Forces. he program must be at least 720 hours of instruction with a 160-hour externship
- Have at least five years of work experience as a medical assistant in the past seven years. No more than two of those years can be as an instructor in a medical assistant program
- Currently be an instructor in an accredited medical assistant education program and have at least five years of teaching experience
AMT (RMA) Exam
The RMA exam consists of 210 multiple-choice questions that must be completed in two hours. It costs $120 to sit for this exam. The exam covers four content areas, including:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Administrative medical assisting
- Clinical medical assisting
- Clinical patient interaction
The AMT website has review courses and online practice exams available for purchase to help prepare for this exam. The AMT also publishes comprehensive suggested reference materials lists that candidates can use to study.
AMT (RMA) Renewal
RMA certification holders have two separate components to renew their licenses. First, renewal applicants must pay an annual fee of $60. Second, every three years, RMA certification holders must submit proof of 30 hours of continuing education. These hours can be earned through the AMT or from outside sources but must be related to medical assisting.
National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)
NCCT (NCMA) Eligibility
Candidates for an NCMA certificate through the NCCT must meet one of the following paths to eligibility:
- Be currently enrolled in a medical assistant program at an NCCT-authorized school and have completed high school or earned a GED
- Have completed an NCCT-authorized medical assistant program in the past five years and have completed high school or earned a GED
- Have two years (4,160 hours) of full-time work experience as a medical assistant in the past five years and have completed high school or earned a GED
- Complete a medical assistant training program while in the US military in the past five years and have completed high school or earned a GED
NCCT (NCMA) Exam
The exam for the NCMA certification consists of 150 scored and 15 unscored multiple-choice questions that must be completed in three hours. The cost to take this exam is between $90 and $135 and is determined by which path of eligibility the candidate uses to qualify for the exam. This exam covers:
- Medical procedure
- ECG and other diagnostic tests
- General office procedures
- Medical office general management
- Office financial management, billing, insurance
- Law and ethics
To prepare for this exam, candidates should utilize the online practice exams and the online interactive review programs available for purchase on the NCCT website. The interactive review even has flashcards and case scenarios to help candidates study.
NCCT (NCMA) Renewal
Recertification for the NCMA certification is required annually. To renew, candidates must pay a $77 renewal fee and submit proof of 14 continuing education hours.
Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association (NHA)
NHA (CCMA) Eligibility
To be eligible to sit for the CCMA exam through the NHA, candidates must have graduated from high school or have obtained a GED and meet one of the following eligibility paths:
- Complete an accredited medical assistant training program
- Complete an apprenticeship program in accordance with the U.S. Department of Labor
- Complete medical assistant training in the US military
- Have one year of supervised work experience as a medical assistant in the past three years
NHA (CCMA) Exam
The CCMA exam consists of 150 scored and 30 unscored multiple-choice questions that must be answered in three hours. The exam costs $149 to $159. The topics covered on this exam include:
- Healthcare systems and settings
- Medical terminology
- Basic pharmacology
- Body structures and organ systems
- Pathophysiology and disease processes
- General patient care
- Infection control
- Testing and laboratory procedures
- EKG and cardiovascular testing
- Administrative assisting
- Patient care coordination and education
- Communication and customer service
- Medical law and ethics
Candidates can prepare for this exam through their own studies or by purchasing a study guide or practice exam on the NHA website.
NHA (CCMA) Renewal
The CCMA certification must be renewed every two years. To renew, applicants must pay a $169 renewal fee and submit proof of 10 hours of continuing education.
Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.