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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants
Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association
National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing
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:
- What medical procedures have you assisted with?
- Have you worked with children or the elderly?
- How would you handle a difficult physician or patient?
- Have you had experience in patient education?
- Which certifications do you have?
- What training have you completed in medical software?
- Can you tell me the HIPAA protocol for medical record-keeping?
- Are you CPR certified?
- Have you developed phlebotomy or X-ray skills?
- Are you now taking or plan to enroll in continuing education and reflated classes?