How To Become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) - Education & Experience

Medical assistants play an important role in the modern healthcare industry, providing assistance to other professionals and helping attend to patients. The American Association of Medical Assistants (2020) details a medical assistant’s typical job responsibilities, including preparing patients for examinations; taking medical histories; administering medication as requested by the attending physician; performing electrocardiograms; changing wound dressings or removing stitches; collecting samples for lab testing; serving as liaisons between doctors and patients; and fulfilling various administrative functions (e.g., scheduling appointments, coding medical services, preparing insurance forms, maintaining medical records, etc).

These cross-disciplinary medical professionals work across various healthcare settings, concentrated in outpatient clinics, medical offices, and other ambulatory care facilities. Many employers prefer certified medical assistants (CMAs) who have achieved AAMA certification or credentialing through another accredited organization (details below).

In some cases, CMAs have additional specialized certifications allowing them to fulfill other clinical responsibilities. For example, a CMA with a specialization in chiropractic care may assist a chiropractor during an adjustment, whereas a medical assistant who works in the office of an optometrist or ophthalmologist may help with an eye examination. Students who are certain of their future career interests or curious about particular areas of specialization should seek out opportunities to take courses related to the anatomy and physiology of these clinical specializations or seek out practical experiences in a specific type of clinic.

This piece details how to become a certified medical assistant (CMA), including the necessary education, training, and preferred credentialing in this high-growth profession.

What is a Certified Medical Assistant?

As mentioned in the introduction, medical assistants help other healthcare professionals in both clinical or administrative settings; this may include performing minor procedures such as drawing blood or completing front-office tasks such as calling patients and scheduling appointments.

Unlike physicians and many other healthcare professionals, medical assistants are not required to be certified or licensed in most states. Aspiring CMAs are encouraged to reach out to their local state board of medicine—a list of which is provided by the AAMA—to verify all necessary credentialing. That said, it’s no surprise that most employers prefer candidates who have achieved national credentialing as it demonstrates an additional level of commitment to the healthcare profession.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there are five main certifications for medical assistants from entities approved by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies:

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants
  • Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists
  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from the National Healthcareer Association
  • Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association

The BLS (Apr. 2020) found that medical assisting is a rapidly growing career, projecting a 19 percent increase in job openings in this field nationally between 2019 and 2029. This growth figure is much more robust than the 4 percent average growth anticipated across all occupations during that same time period. With the predicted addition of 154,900 fresh openings for medical assistants nationwide, it is expected there will be ample job opportunities in the coming decade.

Steps to Become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020) notes that aspiring medical assistants must typically attend a postsecondary education program lasting from one to two years, which includes instruction in subjects such as anatomy and medical terminology. While these steps may vary by certification desired and state of residence, here is one common route to becoming a CMA in the US:

Step 1: Obtain a High School Diploma or GED (Four Years)

Perhaps the most important step in this process is the completion of high school or the attainment of a GED. At this stage, students should focus on science and math courses that can help prepare them for a CMA career such as biology, chemistry, physics, statistics, algebra, and related electives. It may also be advisable to volunteer at a local clinic or physician’s office as this experience enhances a student’s candidacy for postsecondary school programs and exposes the individual to the rigors of working in a healthcare environment.

Step 2: Complete a Required Medical Assistant Program (One to Two Years)

While there are no national requirements for a medical assistant’s education, the American Association for Medical Assistants (AAMA) requires that these healthcare professionals complete an approved postsecondary program prior to seeking certification.

Specifically, the AAMA states that “only graduates of medical assisting programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) are eligible to take the CMA (AAMA) certification examination.”

Each of the organizations provides a list of approved programs nationwide. The AAMA states that approved programs generally offer instruction in a wealth of clinical and administrative areas such as human anatomy; medical terminology; pharmacology; first aid; lab techniques; how to administer medicine; coding & insurance processing; record-keeping & accounting; computer competency; and medical law & ethics, to name a few subjects. Additionally, students in these programs typically complete a practicum, an unpaid supervised internship in a healthcare setting.

Alternatively, in August 2019, the AAMA launched a pilot program giving medical assistants another educational pathway to be eligible for the CMA certification exam. This is a time-limited which aims to expand access to certification. To qualify, an applicant must submit the proof of the following: completion of a two-semester 560-hour postsecondary medical assisting program accredited by the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA); a minimum of 160 practicum or externship hours or 1,000 hours of medical assisting experience after completing a postsecondary program; and an awards diploma, certificate or associate’s degree.

As well, the postsecondary program curriculum must include courses in anatomy and physiology; pharmacology; infection control; applied mathematics; theory and techniques of intramuscular, intradermal, and subcutaneous injection administration; and theory and techniques of phlebotomy. The cost of documentation review by AAMA is free, but students will have to pay exam fees if they qualify.

Step 3: Pass the CMA Examination (Less Than One Year)

Finally, after completing an accredited medical assisting program, the individual must then pass the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination or the equivalent through one of the aforementioned organizations. Aspiring CMAs must submit a completed application and a fee ($125). Also, CAAHEP- or ABHES-accredited programs generally send official transcripts to the AAMA to verify the student’s candidacy for the certification exam.

The AAMA provides a general outline of the test content, which includes the following categories:

  • Human behavior
  • Human growth & development
  • Death & dying stages
  • Therapeutic & adaptive responses to diverse populations
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Data collection
  • Professionalism & interpersonal skills
  • Medical law & regulations (e.g., advance directives, scope of practice, confidentiality, third party payers & insurance, consumer protection acts, etc.)

The exam includes 200 multiple-choice questions, and candidates are allowed three attempts to pass. The CMA candidates receive an official copy of his or her scores approximately eight weeks after the exam, and the official CMA (AAMA) certificate arrives ten weeks after that, officially denoting his or her status as a CMA.

It’s worth noting that students are able to take the exam up to one month prior to completing their medical assisting program. Also, according to the most recent data (Aug. 2020), there were 10,434 AAMA (CMA) certification candidates and 60 percent of them (6,308) passed the exam on their first attempt.

Step 4: Maintain the AAMA (CMA) Credential (Every 60 Months)

The AAMA (CMA) certification is valid for 60 months and can be maintained by examination or completing 60 continuing education units (i.e., recertification points) across the following content areas: general (10), administrative (10), clinical (10), and any combination of the three content areas (30).

These are the steps necessary for the AAMA credential, and other certifying agencies have slightly different timelines and requirements.

Other Certifications for Medical Assistants

Focusing on only credentialing organizations recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), here is a summary of certification requirements for three other entities:

American Medical Technologists (AMT)

  • Credential: Registered Medical Assistant (RMA)
  • Initial requirements: To qualify for the AMT exam, candidates must have either completed an accredited training program (720 training hours and 160 internship hours), a military medical services training program, five years of qualifying work experience in the past seven years, or five years of medical assistant instructor experience.
  • Renewal: This certification is valid for three years as long as the candidate has paid annual fees ($50), a recertification fee ($175), and completed 30 continuing education units (CEUs).

National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)

  • Credential: National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA)
  • Initial requirements: Candidates for the certification exam must either be current students or graduated from an NCCT-authorized program within the past five years, have completed the military equivalent of a medical assistant training program, or have two years of relevant work experience. The exam costs $90 if taken within six months of graduation and $135 thereafter.
  • Renewal: This credential must be renewed annually following the completion of 14 clock hours (CH) of continuing education and payment of a fee ($77), although requirements and fees may vary for candidates with multiple NCCT certifications.

National Healthcareer Association (NHA)

  • Credential: Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) or Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)
  • Initial requirements: Candidates must have completed either a post-secondary training program or at least one year of qualifying work experience. The exams include 150 scored questions and 30 ‘pretest’ items.
  • Renewal: These certifications are valid for two years and can be renewed following the completion of 10 CEUs.

State Licensure for Medical Assistants

As previously mentioned, the BLS (2020) states that medical assistants are not required to be certified in most states. The AAMA keeps a list of the scope of practice laws for medical assistants by state to help medical assistants determine the legal requirements in the states where they hope to find work.

By illustration, medical assistants in Mississippi are not required to have a state license or be certified to work, while Washington state requires medical assistants to have a state-issued medical assistant credential from the state department of health even if they hold national certification.

Although most states do not require medical assistants to be certified, most employers in all states seek out applicants with minimum qualifications that include national-level certification from one of the aforementioned organizations. To be eligible for more job opportunities and future promotions, becoming a CMA is recommended.

Rachel Drummond
Rachel Drummond Writer

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).