What Do Medical Assistants Do? Responsibilities & Specializations
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical assistants are the backbone of medical facilities since they perform administrative and clinical tasks required to take care of patients.
Medical assistants play a vital role in the healthcare industry, providing services for both medical professionals and patients. They can assist with basic medical tasks such as taking vital signs, administering medications per a physician’s orders, or gathering medical history. They also help on the office side of medical clinics by scheduling appointments, billing insurance, and processing paperwork.
Becoming a medical assistant can be a much quicker path than pursuing a medical degree or nursing degree. Generally, those pursuing a nursing degree need to complete at least four years of postsecondary school, while doctors complete 12 or more years to receive their medical degree. Medical assistants, however, only need to earn a high school diploma, and in some cases, they complete a medical assistant program to become certified medical assistants (CMAs). Much of the training to become a medical assistant can actually take place through on-the-job training.
This is a rapidly growing career. The BLS (2021) reported that positions in this field would increase 19 percent between 2019 and 2029, adding 139,200 jobs nationwide. Wages for this field vary based on place of employment, years of experience, education completed, and certifications held. On average, the 710,200 medical assistants working in the US earn $36,930 per year (BLS May 2020).
Overall, many find a career as a medical assistant to be extremely rewarding. For those considering pursuing a future in this field, it is important to fully understand all aspects of the medical assistant’s role. This guide provides a general overview of the medical assistant career, exploring the scope of work, specializations, common employers, work environment, and certification and licensure.
Medical Assistant Job Overview
Medical assistants perform administrative and clinical tasks in various healthcare-related locations, providing professional assistance to healthcare personnel. Medical assistants may be responsible for various tasks based on location, employer, and a number of other factors.
According to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), some typical duties include taking patients’ vital signs, as well as recording patient health histories and any relevant personal information. Clinical medical assistants may also administer injections and prepare blood or other samples for testing, whereas administrative medical assistants will utilize patient information to create medical records.
It is important to note that medical assistants should not be confused with physician assistants, who have a different role in the healthcare industry. Comparatively, physician assistants—unlike medical assistants—have the ability to diagnose and treat patients under the supervision of a physician. Medical assistants have a more limited scope of practice, focusing instead on more administrative and basic clinical tasks.
Medical Assistant Specializations
Medical assistants have the opportunity to select a specialty if they work in a larger medical facility or are employed by a specialty clinic. Specialization may allow for greater efficiency in the workplace as medical assistants focus their entire practice on one area. The following list outlines common areas of specialization for medical assistants:
Clinical Medical Assistants
Clinical medical assistants may perform basic tests in a laboratory, sterilize medical equipment, and even dispose of medical supplies that have been contaminated. In some cases, these individuals may have additional duties such as preparing patients for x-ray procedures, drawing blood, or even removing stitches when necessary.
Administrative Medical Assistants
On the other hand, administrative medical assistants manage the administrative tasks within a healthcare facility. This may include recording patient information, filling out insurance forms, scheduling patient appointments, and even answering phone calls to schedule patients or provide test results.
Obstetric Medical Assistants
Obstetric medical assistants work specifically in the office of an obstetrician. They work closely with obstetricians and other medical personnel within the department of obstetrics and gynecology, often helping with breast exams and minor obstetric surgery, and even caring for pregnant women who visit the office.
Ophthalmologic Medical Assistants
Ophthalmologic medical assistants help ophthalmologists—i.e., those whose practice focuses specifically on the treatment of their patient’s eyes. These medical assistants may administer eye medication or, on occasion, even help with minor eye surgery.
Common Employers of Medical Assistants
Based on the nature of the profession, medical assistants generally work for a public or private clinic, in a hospital, or in another healthcare setting. The BLS (May 2021) reported that 57 percent of all medical assistants work in physicians’ offices, while 15 percent work in hospitals (state, local, and private), 8 percent work in outpatient care centers, and 4 percent find employment in chiropractic services.
Daily Tasks of a Medical Assistant
While the responsibilities of medical assistants may vary, the most general day-to-day tasks below are outlined according to the medical assistant’s specialty. Those working in a clinical setting may be required to:
- Draw blood from patients
- Prepare samples for testing in a laboratory
- Measure any required vital signs, as requested by the treating physician
- Give patients injections or prepare them for x-rays
- Take electrocardiograms
- Change wound dressings or remove stitches
- Conduct basic lab tests on specimens
- Educate patients on administering medications according to physician specifications
- Explain general treatment procedures to patients or families
- Assist the treating physician in any other way necessary
By contrast, those who have an administrative focus can expect to:
- Schedule patient examinations, appointments, and follow-ups, if necessary
- Answer the phone and take messages for the medical staff
- Enter patient information into medical records according to the proper procedures and codes
- Record any patient medical history and personal information
- Perform any other administrative tasks required by other healthcare personnel
- Greet patients
- Code and complete insurance forms
- Call affiliate facilities to arrange admissions or diagnostic services
- Perform bookkeeping
Naturally, the day-to-day tasks of a medical assistant will vary depending on several other factors, including their place of employment. For example, an obstetric medical assistant may need to assist the obstetrician with caring for pregnant women or administering breast exams.
In contrast, a chiropractic medical assistant may help the treating doctor with various chiropractic treatments. Because the responsibilities of a medical assistant differ by specialty, those pursuing a career in this field should ultimately be prepared to take on any tasks requested by the healthcare staff to whom they are providing assistance.
Medical Assistant Work Environment
The pace of work for a medical assistant can vary widely. Some work environments can be extremely fast-paced, while others can be relatively moderate or even slow, depending on where the individual works. Clinical medical assistants in a public hospital may be on their feet throughout the shift, constantly performing tasks required by healthcare personnel. The stress of this type of work environment can be further compounded if the hospital is a central hub within the area and receives patients on a consistent basis.
On the other hand, an administrative medical assistant in a small, private clinic may have a much less arduous routine.
Medical assistants who work in emergency care facilities open 24/7 may be asked to work various full-time shifts, including nights, weekends, and holidays. However, those who work in smaller, specialty clinics may work a more traditional full-time shift (e.g., 8 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday). While others, especially those in a clinical setting, may instead work three 12-hour shifts each week, with the possibility for additional overtime.
Medical Assistant Certifications and Licensing
In most cases, certification is a voluntary step for medical assistants. Earning a certification demonstrates competency and proficiency as a medical assistant and gives potential employers the confidence that a candidate has the skills to work in this field. There are five primary medical assistant certifications and agencies. They are the:
- 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
Requirements for each certification vary, but most include completing medical assistant education or work experience as well as passing a certification exam. Once certified, medical assistants must maintain their certification with continuing education.
Licenses for medical assistants are required in some states in order to practice in this field. Medical assistants should check with their local licensing boards to ensure they have the necessary qualifications to practice in this field. For example, Washington state requires medical assistants to be licensed. They can be licensed as a general medical assistant or under a specialty such as phlebotomy or hemodialysis. Requirements for a license in Washington ask applicants to:
- Complete a medical assistant education program or have approved work experience
- Pass one of the five medical assistant national certification exams
- Submit a completed application
- Pay an application fee
- Pass a background check