Becoming a Medical Assistant

Learn the key steps to become a medical assistant, from choosing the right program to applying for and nailing the job interview

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There are a lot of ways to become a medical assistant. Certificate programs offer the fastest way to entering the field, with many programs lasting just a few months. Diploma programs run a bit longer and focus more on the clinical aspects of the career, while associate degrees take two years to complete and include general education courses. Students also need to decide on the mode in which they learn: on campus, partially online, or mostly online.

Making these educational decisions may not be straightforward, with multiple variables to weigh at each turn. The key to making the right decisions lies in finding the right information and figuring out what it all means to you. This page gives those who wish to become medical assistants a detailed look at all their educational options: what each entails, the types available, the costs, and the financial and career benefits at the end. Get a new career started today.

The Right Career? What Is a Medical Assistant?

Successful medical assistants combine their clinical knowledge with administrative and communication skills. Before diving into a training program that lasts a year or more, students should assess whether they’re a good fit for the profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that key attributes of successful medical assistants include:

  • Analytical skills to follow medical diagnoses and charts.
  • Commitment and focus to accurately record details of patient vital signs and insurance codes.
  • Significant interpersonal skills to communicate with physicians and their patients.
  • Technical skills with basic clinical instruments used for taking patient’s vital signs.

In addition, job recruiting site Monster.com suggests that potential students answer the following questions:

  • Do you enjoy working with people?
  • How many years can you commit to training (1, 2 or 4 years)?
  • Can you apply yourself to handling different tasks every day?
  • Are you comfortable with multi-tasking?
  • Do you enjoy performing administrative duties along with clinical work?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be well-suited for a career as a medical assistant and for subsequent advancement in the healthcare professions. The next important step is to identify the ideal educational pathway that maps to your career aspirations.

Choose Your Educational Path

Vocational schools, public community colleges, and private career institutes help prepare aspiring medical assistants for positions at physician’s offices, medical clinics, and hospitals. These students can choose from a wide range of educational opportunities, each with its own set of strengths and options. There are programs that lead to certificates, diplomas, or associate degrees. Each program addresses specific skills for employment and a range of wages by role. Let’s take a closer look at each:

Certificate

Medical assisting certificate programs take from 9 months to a year to complete, depending on the school and curriculum. A certificate program usually targets students who intend to take a national certification examination following graduation.

Diploma

A program leading to a diploma in medical assisting offers much the same curriculum common to certification programs. Time to completion of the diploma runs from nine to 15 months, depending on the school. Diploma programs take longer to complete than certificate programs because they are more focused directly on clinical experience and require 7-8 additional credits than a certificate.

Associate degree

This two-year option gives students a more well-rounded education, which includes liberal arts and other general education courses. It may be the slowest education path to becoming a medical assistant, but it could give you better long-term prospects should you wish to move beyond medical assisting.

Where to Become a Medical Assistant

There are four major types of medical assisting schools, each varying by the method of course delivery, the length of program, and cost of tuition. Your school may offer seasonal tuition discounts. Another institution may offer more than one completion option including a diploma, certificate, and associate degree. Here’s a breakdown of school types to compare:

Vocational schools

Medical assisting trade and vocational schools offer dedicated career-prep programs. They often include participation in externships in a professional setting.Read More

Specialized academies/institutes

Colleges and universities may host a specialized academy to prepare students for certificates, diplomas, and degrees in medical assisting.Read More

For-profit colleges

Private, for-profit colleges have their advantages. Depending on the college, the course of study mirrors medical assistant curriculum at many other educational institutions.Read More

Community colleges

Accredited certificate/diploma programs and associate degrees at community colleges are widely accepted among employers. Program credits may be transferable to four-year schools.Read More

Can I Become a Medical Assistant Online?

Busy students with work and family obligations may prefer online training. Hybrid programs (either mostly or partially) combine online courses with on-campus or community-based components. In these cases, much of the administrative curriculum is delivered via the web. Students can research, learn, participate, and submit assignments via a school’s own online portal or through a third-party system such as Blackboard.

Despite the growing popularity of the online option, medical assistant students need to complete the hands-on portion of the program in person. This means visiting campus to participate in laboratory work, and finishing internships or externships at actual medical facilities. In many cases, the online program will help students find these opportunities, or they may have a list of facilities at which they have relationships (and to which you can easily apply). Read through Step 5 below to see how clinicals and externships work, or visit our full page about online medical assistant programs for more details on the distance learning option.

Apply & Enroll

Application and enrollment procedures are tailored for each program and the type of post-secondary credentials it offers. Some may require completion of an extensive list of courses to prepare for college-level academics. Others allow students to pick up their mathematics or science courses in their first semester or at summer school prior to their first semester. Research and review each of your prospective programs carefully to find the best fit. Compare admission requirements, application deadlines and fees. Look into the types of financial aid each offers. Here’s a roundup of essential points to compare:

Prerequisites

Each college and vocational training program for medical assistants may set its own prerequisites for entry based on its curriculum or state requirements. Some programs favor applicants completing high school classes in mathematics, science, and anatomy. However, there is a common set of prior education or qualifying experience needed for admission. These can include:

  • Completion of a high school diploma or GED
  • Proof of personal healthcare coverage
  • Completion of a compliant HIV/AIDS education course
  • Current American Heart Association training and CPR card
  • 100%-compliant immunization records

Completion of high school classes in mathematics, science, and anatomy may improve your chances of acceptance to a program.

Application process & fees

Funding your program

Complete Your Coursework

Coursework for medical assistants combines a number of critical components of working in a medical facility. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, clerical and administrative tasks, front office communication, electronic records, and understanding how the body works. Here’s a sampling of the courses you’ll take in a medical assistant training program:

Anatomy and Physiology

Anatomy and Physiology. Covers immunity, medical terminology, bone and muscular structures, the cardiovascular system, infection control, respiration and genetics.

Electronic Medical Records. Learn how digital health information technology applies to medical settings. Students focus on basic accounting transactions, insurance billing cycles, billing patients, and recording payments. Training in digital software may include studies in MEDITECH, eClinicalWorks, and Epic Systems.

Ethics and Professionalism. This course focuses on maintaining patient confidentiality and data security pertaining to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations.

Medical Assisting Exam Preparation. This seminar directs students though a review of topics routinely measured in national certification exams. Most include practice exams and test-taking strategies.

Finish Clinicals & Externships

Near the end of a medical assistant program, students must complete several clinical laboratory requirements and an internship or externship in medical assisting. These opportunities take the hands-on clinicals to the next level, enabling students to complete real-world duties in a healthcare facility under the supervision of experienced assistants. The working medical assistant shadows the student, offering useful feedback toward performing medical and administrative duties. In addition, a successful externship can result in broad networks essential for finding employment. Students may acquire mentors to help them as they build their careers. Here are some courses that students might expect to complete in clinicals and externships:

Medical Clinical Assisting Lab

Students gain practical experience in preparing patients and the taking and documenting vital signs. In addition to the clinical practice, students will compile pertinent administrative records. Students are expected to learn effective and professional communication techniques with physicians and patients alike.

Advanced Clinical Assisting Lab

Students learn electrocardiography, specimen collection protocols, hematology, injections, respiratory testing, quality control and supply inventory. The student also learns the fundamentals of emergency preparedness.

Externship

Students must complete a 180-hour externship within one year of completion of their coursework. They will integrate classwork and clinicals into supervised practice under the guidance of a professional medical assistant.

Become Certified as a Medical Assistant

According to the BLS, certification isn’t a requirement for medical assistants, but it is highly recommended. Employers tend to hire Certified Medical Assistants (CMA), and pay more to job candidates who have been certified.” Each state may require a minimum age of 18 and completion of an accredited program with practical externships. Some states do not require certification.

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies cites these five certifications for medical assistants:

CMA

Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants

CMAA

Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association

NCMA

National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing

RMA

Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists

For more on certification, read our detailed page on earning your medical assistant certification online.

Resumes & Job Applications

When applying for a medical assistant job, applicants should be able to demonstrate fluency in medical terminology. Other skill sets can further increase your chances for success. Employers want to know that your formal training has readied you for patient preparation, vital signs measurement, injections, and electrocardiograms (EKG). You should also demonstrate readiness for organizational duties such as appointment scheduling, digital billing and administration of electronic medical records (EMR). Requirements for formal certification vary by role and employer. The following sites can show you examples or templates for creating an effective medical assisting resume:

Nail the Interview

The BLS predicts there will be 94,900 job openings for medical assistants from 2016-2026. Will you take one of them? A post-secondary credential or certification may not guarantee that you land a position, but it can help get your foot in the door. Employers may decide that, all things being equal, your externship reviews and personal communication skills are paramount. Your performance during an interview can go a long way to helping you go from graduate to job holder. Here are ten key questions you may face when interviewing as a medical assistant:

  1. What medical procedures have you assisted with?
  2. Have you worked with children or the elderly?
  3. How would you handle a difficult physician or patient?
  4. Have you had experience in patient education?
  5. Which certifications do you have?
  6. What training have you completed in medical software?
  7. Can you tell me the HIPAA protocol for medical record-keeping?
  8. Are you CPR certified?
  9. Have you developed phlebotomy or X-ray skills?
  10. Are you now taking or plan to enroll in continuing education and reflated classes?