Certified Medical Assistant vs. Medical Lab Technician

Anyone who is interested in working in a career in healthcare that provides vital assistance to physicians and patients alike may wish to consider becoming either a certified medical assistant (CMA) or a medical lab technician (MLT). While both work with physicians and other healthcare staff, professionals in these two roles have very different responsibilities, and for the most part work in different settings; as such, anyone who is deciding between these two career options should fully understand them before making a final decision on which one to pursue.

As mentioned, both CMAs and MLTs support physicians and other healthcare staff, but in different ways. A CMA generally works either in a clinical environment, wherein he or she assists in the preparation of patients for examinations, the administering of medication, and/or other related tasks, or in an administrative environment, where he or she is tasked with setting appointments, answering the phone, and performing other front-end duties. If a CMA specializes in a field like podiatry or chiropractic medicine, this may add to or alter his or her list of responsibilities.

Contrast this with a medical lab technician, who, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), collects “samples and perform[s] tests to analyze body fluids, tissue, and other substances.” Due to the nature of the work, an MLT will generally find employment in a hospital’s laboratory, or an independent one. Another difference between the two roles involves the organizations responsible for providing certification; certified medical assistants must obtain certification through the American Association of Medical Assistants or a similar certifying agency, whereas those hoping to become medical lab technicians may receive certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology or another certifying body.

Side-By-Side Comparison

Beyond the core similarities and differences mentioned above, there are several additional differences between these two career options, including the education required, salary, and other factors. And, in light of this, we have provided a side-by-side table that compares and contrasts these two careers in more detail.

Certified Medical Assistant Medical Lab Technician
Number practicing in the United States The BLS (2021) reports there are 720,900 medical assistants currently working nationwide According to the BLS (2021), 335,500 medical lab technicians and technologists are currently employed in the United States
Pay $38,190 per year, or $18.36 per hour (median pay) $56,910, or $27.36 per hour (median pay)
Expected job growth (2020-2030) 18 percent 11 percent
Anticipated number of new positions available by 2030 132,600 36,500
Meeting the Requirements
Degree requirements Certified medical assistants must possess a degree from a program accredited by a body recognized by the United States Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and specifically accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), to be eligible for certification through the AAMA. CMAs must also fulfill continuing education requirements to remain certified. Medical lab technicians typically have an associate’s degree to work in this field, but earning a bachelor’s degree may improve one’s competitiveness and salary potential. Importantly, candidates must have at least an associate degree to be eligible to become certified through ASCP.
Degrees available An aspiring certified medical assistant may pursue a certificate, associate’s, or bachelor’s degree through a program accredited by CAAHEP or ABHES, which makes them eligible to sit for the certification examination through AAMA. An aspiring medical lab technician can pursue an associate degree program in medical lab technology, or a program accredited by either ABHES or the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS) to be eligible for certification through the ASCP.
Program details Many medical assisting programs take one to two years to complete, and will likely include laboratory portions and extensive training in anatomy and medical terminology. The MLT associate degree program typically requires the completion of at least 60 semester=hours, which will likely include lab courses and clinical practicums in some cases.
School accreditation To be eligible for certification, aspiring certified medical assistants must graduate from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). To receive certification from the ASCP, one route requires medical lab technicians to complete a technician program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Three schools that offer in-person programs The following three schools offer traditional, campus-based programs in medical assisting:

The following three schools offer programs for medical lab technicians on campus:

Three schools that offer online programs The following three schools offer programs in medical assisting online: The following three schools offer programs for medical lab technicians on campus:

Certification and Licensing
Certification Certified medical assistants may seek certification as a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants, a Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists, a National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing, a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association, or a Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association There are multiple certifying bodies for medical lab technicians, including the American Society for Clinical Pathology, American Medical Technologists (AMT), and the American Association of Bioanalysts (AAB).
Licensing Although licensing requirements vary based on the individual state, an aspiring certified medical assistant will likely need to complete an accredited medical assisting program and obtain certification through AAMA in order to become licensed. Aspiring medical assistants should contact their local board to ensure they have the necessary qualifications. State licensure is only required in the following states (and territories):
  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Louisiana
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Puerto Rico
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • West Virginia

Each individual state sets its own guidelines and regulations, although completion of an accredited medical technician program is likely a prerequisite for all.

Re-certification Certified medical assistants must recertify every 60 months to maintain a valid credential. There are continuing education requirements that must be met, associated with said recertification. In certain circumstances, unless a certified medical lab technician participates in the Credential Maintenance Program (CMP) provided by ASCP, he or she will be required to pursue recertification after a period of three years.
Specializations Certified medical assistants generally have the option to focus on either clinical or administrative duties. Beyond that, they may specialize in:

  • Podiatry
  • Chiropractic medicine
  • Obstetrics
  • Oncology
  • Cardiology
  • Endocrinology
  • Dermatology
  • Internal medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Urology
  • Transplantation surgery
Medical lab technician programs focus on the range of laboratory sciences most applicable in a healthcare setting. That said, a medical lab technician may choose to also obtain a specialized certification, in a field like phlebotomy or histotechnology.
Details About the Job
Practice framework A certified medical assistant will always work as part of a larger team, providing assistance to clients or doctors and other healthcare professionals. A CMA may perform clinical responsibilities, such as administering medication or taking tissue samples, or administrative tasks, such as following up with patients and creating an office schedule. A medical lab technician will most often work under the supervision of a technologist or a lab manager, as described by the BLS. An MLT will generally perform routine analyses in a laboratory setting.
Skills necessary for success Certified medical assistants, in general, must be able to take orders from doctors and other healthcare staff in the workplace setting, as their main objective is to provide assistance. These professionals should also be detail-oriented and have a strong command of anatomy, medical terminology, and other related subjects. Medical lab technicians may not have as much interpersonal communication as certified medical assistants since their work is largely performed in a laboratory setting. That being said, they must have extremely strong attention to detail and must remain patient, as they perform routine tasks daily.
Common practice settings While a certified medical assistant may work in private practice, he or she may also find work in a public or private hospital, in an outpatient clinic, or in any number of other healthcare facilities. Medical lab technicians work in a laboratory setting; this may be operated privately, or this laboratory may be part of a larger hospital or healthcare facility.
Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson Writer

With her passion for uncovering the latest innovations and trends, Kimmy Gustafson has provided valuable insights and has interviewed experts to provide readers with the latest information in the rapidly evolving field of medical technology since 2019. Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.