How to Become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)
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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 (2022) 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 and 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 (2021) found that medical assisting is a rapidly growing career, projecting an 18 percent increase in job openings in this field nationally between 2020 and 2030. This growth figure is much more robust than the 8 percent average growth anticipated across all occupations during that same time period. With the predicted addition of 132,600 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 (May 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 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.
H. Councill Trenholm State Community College offers an associate in applied science degree and a short-term certificate in medical assisting technology. The AAS degree program is accredited by CAAHEP. Combining theoretical instruction with practical application, the program provides students with the necessary knowledge, professionalism, and skills needed for performing effectively as members of the health care team.
Graduates will be eligible to take the American Association of Medical Assistants National Certification Examination and the Medical Technologist Examination. After successfully completing these examinations, graduates can earn the title of certified medical assistant or registered medical assistant.
The AAS degree is made up of 74 credits, while the short-term certificate consists of 25 credits. The curriculum explores topics such as introduction to medical document production; medical terminology; medical administrative procedures; management of office emergencies; medical office insurance; and medical assisting theory.
- Location: Montgomery, AL
- Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- Expected Time to Completion: Associate degree (six terms); short term certificate (two terms)
- Estimated Tuition: 159 per credit
Chattahoochee Valley Community College’s associate of applied science program in medical assisting prepares students to perform clinical and administrative tasks to assist physicians in various areas of the medical practice. Graduates of this program will be eligible to sit for the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) exam.
Students will learn about taking and recording medical histories, administering medication, sterilizing instruments, assisting with minor office procedures, and handling patient emergencies. They will also be prepared for other procedures such as obtaining blood samples, performing routine laboratory procedures, updating and filing patient medical records, filling out insurance forms, and arranging for hospital admissions and laboratory services.
Comprising 72 credits, the program includes courses such as medical terminology; principles of biology; medical administrative procedures; cardiopulmonary resuscitation; medical law and ethics; management of office emergencies; medical pharmacology for the medical office; and medical office insurance.
Apart from the AAS degree, Chattahoochee Valley Community College offers several more programs in medical assisting, which include a 30 credit medical assisting short certificate; a 16 credit medical administrative assistant short certificate; a 13 credit electronic health records specialist short certificate; a 4 credit EKG technician program; and a 14 credit phlebotomy short certificate.
- Location: Phenix City, AL
- Accreditation: Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- Expected Time to Completion: AAS (five semesters)
- Estimated Tuition: In-state ($123 per credit); out-of-state ($246 per credit)
El Paso Community College offers an associate of applied science degree in medical assisting technology preparing students to work in administrative clinic offices, direct patient care, doctor offices, or other related facilities. Students in this program learn about terminology, medical ethics, physiology, anatomy, phlebotomy, pharmacology, laboratory procedures, clinical procedures, and EKGs. Graduates will be eligible to sit for the CMA exam offered through the AAMA or the RMA exam offered through the AMT.
The program comprises 60 credits including coursework in pharmacology & administration of medications; medical assistant laboratory procedures; wellness and health promotion; medical law and ethics; anatomy and physiology for medical assistants; and medical insurance.
Graduates will be ready to take up positions such as medical assistants, medical records managers, medical assistant instructors, transcription supervisors, and clinical team leaders.
El Paso Community College also offers an 18 credit certificate of completion in administrative medical assistant and a 43 credit certificate of completion in medical assisting technology.
- Location: El Paso, TX
- Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- Expected Time to Completion: AAS (four semesters); certificate of completion in medical assisting technology (three semesters) certificate of completion in administrative medical assistant (one semester)
- Estimated Tuition: Resident ($116 per credit); non-resident ($201 per credit)
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, the 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 their scores approximately within three weeks after the exam, and the official CMA (AAMA) certificate arrives six weeks after that, officially denoting their status as a CMA.
It’s worth noting that students can take the exam up to one month prior to completing their medical assisting program. Also, according to the most recent data (between July 2019 and July 2020), there were 7,482 AAMA (CMA) certification candidates and 67 percent of them 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 ($60), a recertification fee ($205), 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 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 the 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.