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When making an appointment with their doctor for an annual check-up, many patients anticipate the conversations they will have with their primary healthcare provider. However, medical offices require a whole team of medical professionals to provide adequate care to patients with compassion and efficiency. More often than not, patients visiting a medical clinic can expect to be in the care of a medical assistant in addition to their primary care provider before, during, and after their medical appointment to provide the necessary degree of medical care. Medical assistants are allied health professionals who perform administrative and clinical duties in medical offices and clinics.
Becoming a medical assistant may be an ideal career choice for organized individuals who want to begin a career in the healthcare field. Medical assistants perform administrative and clinical tasks in their everyday roles, making it a solid choice for those contemplating a career in healthcare but unsure as to whether they are best suited to work in an office or patient-centered setting.
Minimal educational requirements for medical assistants range from a high school diploma with on-the-job training to a one-year certificate or two-year degree program. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that careers in medical assisting are growing at a rate of 18 percent, which is much faster than the average rate for all occupations nationally (eight percent). The BLS predicts that 132,600 new medical assistant jobs will be created between 2020 and 2030 (BLS 2021).
With only a year of specialized training, aspiring medical professionals can be positioned to begin a comprehensive career in medical assisting. Equipped with administrative and clinical skill sets, medical assistants can enjoy lifelong careers in this role or choose to pivot into other careers in healthcare.
Read on to learn more about becoming a medical assistant, including information on accredited education, certification, and salary.
Medical Assistant Specializations & Degree Types
Since most states do not have formal education requirements for jobs in medical assisting, aspiring medical assistants enter the field through one of three educational pathways: a high school diploma with on-the-job training, a certificate or a diploma in medical assisting, or a two-year associate’s degree in medical assisting.
The first two pathways require approximately a year of education and training after completing a postsecondary degree. High school graduates who learn medical assisting skills through on-the-job training require several months of full-time employment. Certificate and medical assisting diploma programs are typically offered at community colleges and include a year of didactic and clinical experience to prepare medical assistants for the clinical and administrative responsibilities of the job.
Medical assistants who pursue the associate degree pathway typically earn an associate’s degree in science or applied science at the end of a two-year program. Graduates of accredited associate’s degree programs are eligible to sit for medical assistant certification exams.
Medical assistants may opt to choose a clinical specialty during their training in an area such as allergy, cardiology, dermatology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, gerontology, neurology, obstetrics, oncology, or pediatrics.
Admissions Requirements for Medical Assistant Programs
While admissions requirements vary for each educational program, most require applicants to submit some commonly required documents. Below is a list of general admissions requirements for students applying to medical assistant certificate or associate’s degree programs:
- Official high school diploma or GED
- Completed application
- Application fee
- Cover letter or personal essay
- Two or three forms or letters of recommendation from academic or professional sources
- Interview with an admissions committee
- A signed attendance agreement
- Proof of immunizations: measles, mumps, and rubella, typhoid, etc.
Medical Assistant Program Accreditation
Students researching medical assistant educational programs are advised to inquire whether a program or institution is accredited. Accreditation is a metric of educational quality, and students and employers can rely on the fact that accredited schools have met the highest standards of educational rigor. Students who finance their educational expenses with federal loans must attend educational institutions that have met regional, national, or programmatic accreditation standards.
There are two programmatic accrediting organizations for medical assistant programs: the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Both organizations are in charge of vetting the medical assistant curriculum, teaching faculty, and overall program quality. Students who complete CAAHEP- or ABHES-accredited programs are eligible to take the certified medical assistant (CMA) exam offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). More information about medical assistant certification exams follows.
On-Campus Medical Assistant Degree Programs
Flathead Valley Community College’s medical assistant program offers a certificate of applied science. This program prepares graduates for careers in medical assisting, which are in high demand in northwest Montana. The program includes 180 hours of clinical experience, and graduates from this program had a 100 percent job placement rating in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Students who complete this program are prepared to sit for the certified medical assistant examination given by the Certifying Board of the American Association of Medical Assistants.
A small program with only 12 available spots in the student cohort each year, applicants are accepted based on the quality and completeness of the required application materials. The program has rigorous academic standards and requires students to pass courses with a “B-” letter grade in all medical assisting courses.
- Location: Kalispell, MT
- Duration: Three semesters
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $400.70 per credit
The Northeast Mississippi Community College offers a CAAHEP-accredited, one-year medical assisting certificate in medical assisting technology and a two-year associate’s degree in applied science (AAS). Students who complete the first year may choose to graduate with the certificate after 11 months or continue their studies by enrolling in the two-year degree program.
The certificate program combines classroom and clinical work and requires all students to complete courses with a letter grade of “C” or higher to earn credit. Students participate in two semesters of coursework and one semester of supervised practicum experience. Upon completion, students are eligible to take the Medical Assistants Certification Examination.
Students enrolled in the associate’s degree program take two additional semesters of courses after completing the requirements for the medical assisting certificate. Required courses in these two additional semesters include computer applications, public speaking, algebra, and anatomy and physiology.
- Location: Booneville, MS
- Duration: Three to five semesters
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $346.50 per credit
Medical assistant students at Kapi‘olani Community College have two program options. These include a certificate of achievement and an associate’s degree. While all three of them can prepare graduates for a career in medical assisting, the more education completed the more competitive a student will be in the job market and the more responsibility they will be able to assume. All programs include didactic and laboratory classes along with supervised clinical experiences.
There is a certificate of competence in healthcare practice management for students wanting to work on the administrative side. This program does not include the clinical side of medical assisting but rather prepares graduates to assist with practice management, medical billing, human resources, and more.
- Location: Honolulu, HI
- Duration: Two semesters to two years
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $345 per credit
In just two years students can complete an associate’s of applied science in medical assisting at South Puget Sound Community College. This program combines clinical and administrative skills to help produce well-rounded medical assistants who can fill multiple roles in any healthcare setting.
Some students may qualify for Worker Retraining funds and can complete this direct-to-career degree for low or no costs. This program can even include paying for books and fees, should the student qualify.
- Location: Olympia, WA
- Duration: Two years
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $131.27 per credit
With both an associate’s degree and diploma option, Wake Technical Community College students can choose a medical assistant program that suits their timeline and needs. Either program can lead to becoming a Certified Medical Assisting (CMA) through by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Students in both programs must attend on-campus classes full-time during the day.
Skills students learn in this program include scheduling appointments, medical billing, collections, computer programs, assisting with exams, performing lab procedures, legal issues, and ethics. In addition to classroom coursework, students will participate in clinical experiences to gain hands-on skills.
- Location: Raleigh, NC
- Duration: One to two years
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $268 per credit
Online or Hybrid Medical Assistant Degree Programs
Clarion University offers a fully online associate of science degree in allied health. This 30-credit program is designed to expand on the didactic and practical knowledge taught in accredited educational programs in allied health fields such as medical lab technology, paramedic technology, medical assisting, and ultrasonography. Students with credentials in an allied health field can earn an additional 30 credits of general education and are given 30 credits for their previous clinical training.
Students in this online program can use their practical experience to gain continuing education credits and prepare themselves to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing, healthcare administration, or related disciplines. The Clarion University of Pennsylvania Online also offers a fully-online bachelor’s of science in allied health leadership for those who want to pursue healthcare management careers.
- Location: Pittsburg, PA
- Duration: Four terms
- Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Tuition: $462.20 per credit
The Northwest-Shoals Community College in Muscle Shoals, Alabama offers a CAAHEP-accredited associate degree in applied science with a medical assisting technology emphasis and short-term certificates in phlebotomy and medical billing and coding.
Students may complete some of their credits online in a hybrid learning environment and some classes require attendance on-campus. Students in the medical assisting technology degree program are prepared to assist medical professionals and perform administrative duties in clinical settings.
The 13-credit short-term certificate in phlebotomy prepares graduates to work in various healthcare settings including acute care, hospital laboratories, and emergency clinics under the supervision of medical laboratory technologists or laboratory managers. Graduates of this program are well-prepared with knowledge of safety protocols and procedures for handling human blood gained through classroom and clinical instruction. Students also have the option of adding on studies in medical billing and coding which prepares them for the administrative tasks expected of a medical assistant.
- Location: Muscle Shoals, AL
- Duration: Two semesters
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $283 per credit
Students can earn either a diploma or associate’s degree in medical assisting online from Herzing University. Students can complete their program without relocating by taking advantage of distance learning courses. Many students can even continue to work while advancing their education. All didactic classes are offered online, while labs and clinical experiences are completed at a site near the student’s home.
This accredited program prepares graduates for certification as a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) or Registered Medical Assistant (RMA). The first test attempt is even included in the program’s cost. If students want to pursue additional education they can transfer their credits towards a bachelor’s degree at Herzing or another institution.
- Location: Milwaukee, WI
- Duration: Eight to 20 months
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $490 per credit
In just two years, students can complete the online associate’s of science in medical assisting at Keiser University. Graduates of this program are prepared to perform several administrative and clinical tasks including billing, appointment scheduling, taking patient histories, and assisting with medical exams. Students will also gain valuable hands-on skills such as phlebotomy and how to administer an EKG.
In total, students must earn 60 semester credit hours to graduate from this program. Required coursework includes behavioral science, English, communications, computers, clinical courses, math, and natural science.
- Location: Fort Lauderdale, FL
- Duration: two semesters
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $283 per credit
The online medical assistant program at Mercy College of Health Science takes only one year to complete. While most course work is delivered through online learning, students must attend two in-person skill labs at one of the cohort locations. Cohort locations are available across the country and allow students to network with peers and faculty, while still earning their degrees through distance learning. In addition to pre-recorded lectures, students are expected to participate in discussion boards, complete writing assignments, and watch educational videos. This variety of learning styles meets the needs of diverse learners.
Enrollment is ongoing and students can choose to start in either the spring or fall of each year. To graduate, students must complete 160 practicum hours. These hours are typically completed at one of the cohort locations, although other arrangements can be made. During the practicum, students will gain hands-on skills in medical offices.
- Location: Des Moines, IA
- Duration: One year
- Accreditation: CAAHEP
- Tuition: $10,000 approximately for the whole program
How Long Does it Take to Become a Medical Assistant?
The short answer is approximately one to two years. Most states do not have minimum educational requirements for medical assistants. Many medical assistant positions require a minimum of a high school diploma or GED and some clinics offer on-the-job training for medical assistants with postsecondary degrees. This typically entails several months of supervised practical experience in a clinical setting.
Some positions require a professional certificate, diploma, or two-year associate’s degree in medical assisting. Certificate or diploma programs in medical assisting typically take one year to complete while associate’s degrees can be completed in two years and often include a practicum to complement to required coursework.
How To Become a Medical Assistant – Step-by-Step Guide
Step One: Graduate from High School or Earn a GED (Four Years)
The first step to many rewarding careers is graduating from high school and earning a high school diploma or GED equivalent. High school students wanting to enter a reputable educational program for medical assisting should take as many courses as possible in biology, chemistry, anatomy, business, and computer skills.
Step Two: Complete a Medical Assisting Program (One Year or More)
When searching for a certificate or a two-year associate’s degree program in medical assisting, it is essential to look for accredited programs. Students who want to ensure they receive the highest quality educational instruction should seek colleges and universities with regional, national, or programmatic accreditation. As previously mentioned, the two programmatic accrediting bodies for medical assisting are the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
To gain practical administrative and clinical experience, programs accredited by CAAHEP and ABHES require a supervised, unpaid practicum experience to round out the theoretical components of the educational instruction offered in their programs. Ideally, students should complete practicum hours in a setting similar to where they aspire to work.
Step Three: Pass a Certification Examination (Timeline Varies)
To become eligible for a medical assisting certification exam, candidates must meet certain criteria. These typically include completing an accredited medical assisting program with supervised clinical work experience and passing an exam.
Detailed information about medical assistant certification exams can be found in the certification and licensure section of this article below.
Step Five: Pursue Continuing Education
Whether a medical assistant has a high school diploma, professional certificate, or a two-year associate’s degree, continuing education is required to renew certification. Pursuing continuing education also shows professional commitment to the field, and most educational programs in medical assisting prepare graduates for clinical work and future educational and professional advancement.
A medical assistant with an associate’s degree can choose to take specialized classes or pursue a four-year degree in nursing or a related administrative or clinical healthcare profession to meet continuing education requirements.
What Do Medical Assistants Do?
By and large, medical assistants divide their time between administrative and clinical tasks in healthcare facilities. While some educational programs prepare medical assistants for work in specialized administrative or clinical roles, most professionals are trained to perform work behind a desk and in clinical support roles.
Typical administrative and clinical job responsibilities performed by medical assistants are listed below:
- Collecting patient information
- Entering patient information into the electronic medical record database
- Accepting payment
- Billing patient insurance
- Sending electronic prescriptions to pharmacies
- Scheduling patients for follow-up appointments
- Communicating post-visit instructions from a physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner
- Leading patients to examination rooms
- Documenting patients’ medical history
- Taking patients’ vital signs
- Preparing patients for medical procedures
- Assisting physicians, physician assistants, or nurse practitioners with clinical procedures
- Collecting specimens for laboratory tests
- Disinfecting examination rooms and instruments
Medical Assistants Certifications & Licensure
Most states do not require medical assistants to hold professional certification for employment. However, some positions do require certification, and medical assistants who want to be competitive in the job search should consider earning certification to demonstrate their knowledge and commitment to the profession.
The National Commission for Certifying Agencies accredits five certifications for medical assistants. Here is a list of the certification exams and their accrediting bodies:
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association
- Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association
- Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
- National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing
- Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from the American Medical Technologists
Certifications typically involve an education and experience review, as well as an examination. Each credential has its own renewal procedures and continuing education requirements, which can be found on the websites of the certification authorities above.
How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?
The average annual salary for a medical assistant is $38,190 (BLS May 2021); however, salaries vary depending on education, experience, and employment location. The percentiles for wages are:
- 10th percentile: $29,070
- 25th percentile: $30,200
- 50th percentile (median): $37,190
- 75th percentile: $43,490
- 90th percentile: $48,170
Medical Assistant Career Alternatives
Here are some alternatives to a career as a medical assistant:
Become a Phlebotomist
Phlebotomists perform venipunctures to draw patients’ blood for lab testing. They have to have a good bedside manner and strong attention to detail to ensure the proper vials are filled for the tests ordered by the doctor. They must also be able to properly store and process samples.
- Typical Education: Certificate
- Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Medical Technologists (AMT), National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT), or American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Certification (ASCP-BOC)
Become a Psychiatric Technician or Aide
Psychiatric technicians and aides support individuals with disabilities or long-term mental illnesses. They work in hospitals, in-patient centers, correctional facilities, and day programs. Day-to-day duties can include helping with personal hygiene, assisting with meals, providing entertainment, and facilitating exercise.
- Typical Education: On-the-job training or certificate
- Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Association of Psychiatric Technicians (AAPT)
Become a Pharmacy Technician
Pharmacies rely on trained pharmacy technicians to help dispense medications and be a second set of eyes to catch medication errors. To get started in this field students will need to complete a certificate or associate’s degree program in pharmacy technology.
- Typical Education: Certificate or associate’s
- Licensing or Certifying Organization: Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PCTB)
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).