What Is a Medical Assistant?

Story at a Glance

Medical assisting is one of the fastest growing, entry-level medical professions in healthcare. It is also one where training can be obtained in under a year, putting you into the field quickly. Today’s article gives you a snapshot of what it takes to becoming a medical assistant, the characteristics employers look for in potential hires, and the long-term job outlook.


medical assistantMedical assistants, also known as MAs, work with physicians, nurse practitioners, and nurses in medical offices and outpatient clinics. Some medical assistants prefer what is called “back office” where they provide direct patient care. Others like “front office” work, which is more administrative and provides indirect care to patients. Some offices are too small to split duties into specialized roles, which is why most medical assisting programs ensure the curriculum covers all eventualities. Even in offices with separation of duties, cross-over is inevitable.

Currently, medical assistants are in high demand because the number of private doctor’s offices and outpatient clinics are increasing. There is also an increasing number of seniors who need medical treatment.

Typical administrative duties of medical assistants

Medical assistants have a variety of duties ranging from greeting patients to taking blood pressures. Administrative, or front-office duties expected from MAs are:

  • Answering telephones.
  • Coding and filling out insurance forms.
  • Coordinating hospital admissions and lab tests.
  • Greeting patients.
  • Handling correspondence, billing, and light bookkeeping.
  • Scheduling appointments, which includes using specialized software programs.
  • Updating and filing patient medical records.
  • Using computer applications.

Typical clinical duties of medical assistants

When interacting with patients in exam rooms, medical assistants are expected to:

  • Assist the doctor during exams, often using a laptop while the doctor performs the exam.
  • Change dressings.
  • Chart medical histories.
  • Collect and prepare lab specimens.
  • Draw blood.
  • Explain treatment procedures to patients.
  • Facilitate electrocardiograms.
  • Instruct patients about medications and special diets.
  • Perform basic lab tests.
  • Prepare and administer medications under the supervision of the physician.
  • Remove sutures.
  • Take blood pressures and other vital signs.
  • Transmit prescription refills as directed.

Characteristics of medical assistantsmedical assistant; medical assisting

Medical assistants are often the first medical professional a patient sees. Although not all patients are nervous when they visit a doctor’s office, they can be. Consequently, MAs must put patients at ease. The ability to build quick rapport with a patient speaks well of the MA and the overall medical practice, especially if a doctor is running late and the patient has to wait for an extended period of time.

Most employers looks for the following characteristics in potential medical assistants.

Characteristic Definition of Characteristic
Analytical skills MAs must comprehend and follow medical documentation and be able to code exams and diagnoses for billing purposes.
Attentive listening When taking a medical history, careful listening is essential. You need to hear what patients say, and be attentive to what they may omitting. Sometimes you have to interpret what they mean. For example, “I feel dizzy,” is a general complaint. How dizzy and when does it occur are key follow up questions you’ll be trained to ask so that your history is as thorough as possible.
Compassion You may have a roomful of patients all at once, many of whom don’t feel good. You will need to be empathetic and treat each one as if that individual is the only one in the room.
Detail oriented Precision is required when taking vital signs and recording other patient information.
Follows directions When you work in healthcare, you are working with people’s physical and emotional well being. You cannot adopt an attitude, believing you know better than the doctors or nurses. Everything you do is under their authority and control. In the end, they are responsible for their patients, so you must do what they tell you even if you disagree.
Nonjudgmental Since you are dealing with the public, you will encounter individuals with lifestyles different from your own. Regardless, you have to treat each patient with a high level of professionalism and compassion. Your job is to assist in the healing process. There is no room for judgment.
Organized and adaptable If you are a person who doesn’t like to be interrupted, working in a medical practice can be frustrating. You are interacting with multiple patients, phone calls, paperwork and sometimes vendors. Most of the time when the day is done, all your work has to be done. Remaining organized and calm are key to fitting everything in with minimal frustration.
Outgoing Even if you are shy and retiring, during the workday you will need to be extroverted. Professionally greeting people, even if they are in pain or distress, goes a long way toward keeping them and the overall office environment calm.
Personable Medical assisting is a social profession. You must be able to discuss medical situations with other health care personnel and to share medical information with patients in terms easy to understand.
Problem Solver A medical practice is complex. You’re dealing with patients, documentation, insurance, and billing all the time. Your supervisor may not be present when a problem arises, so you have to have enough self-confidence in your problem-solving skills to resolve a situation and be accountable for it even if you make a mistake.
Self-Controlled A medical practice is an emotional environment. Patients may be coping with bad news, including terminal diagnoses. There could be days when they take it out on you. No matter what is thrown at you, you have no choice but to maintain self-control and a professional demeanor.
Technical skills Medical assistants need to be competent in the use of clinical instruments and computer technology.

Training for medical assistants

More often than not you will have to obtain formal training to become a medical assistant. However, some practices will train you while you work. Training programs vary in length, but most basic ones can be completed in under a year. If you choose to obtain an associate degree in medical assisting, you’ll be in school from 18-24 months.

Lecture courses you’ll encounter in a medical assisting program include medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, communication in healthcare settings, and some kind of math or accounting class. Lab classes teach you how to draw blood, do an echocardiogram, take vital signs and perform basic lab tests. Although you may learn how to code paper records, more and more medical assistants are required to code health records on laptops and tablets.

Licenses, certifications, and registrations

Many states don’t require medical assistants to be certified. However, certification adds value to your training because a third party has verified your education. Certification could also be preferred by employers.

To become certified, you have to pass an exam, which can be done through one of several organizations. You have to meet the eligibility requirements and then schedule the test. Although there may be some differences in eligibility criteria, most include graduation from an accredited medical assisting program and a minimum number of hours of work or lab experience.

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies, part of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, accredits five certifications for medical assistants. They are listed in alphabetical order.

Different communities and geographical locations determine which certification is preferred. In some areas a CMA is considered the gold standard. In others it may be the RMA. A little research on your part can determine which certification to obtain that ensures you the best results in your job search campaign.

Job outlook and career options for the field of medical assisting

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 29 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. The growth of the aging baby-boom population will continue to increase demand for preventive medical services, which are often provided by physicians. As a result, physicians will hire more assistants to perform routine administrative and clinical duties, allowing the physicians to see more patients.”

With experience, medical assistants can specialize and move into leadership roles. With additional education, you could become a nurse and even go on to become a nurse practitioner or physician assistant.

Although there is no specialized training for medical assistants in various medical disciplines, you may choose to work for doctors who are specialized. Two such dedicated medical assistants are:

  • Ophthalmic and optometric medical assistants – These MA help ophthalmologists and optometrists provide eye care. They may show patients how to insert, remove, and care for contact lenses. Ophthalmic medical assistants also may help an ophthalmologist in surgery.
  • Podiatry medical assistants – MAs who work closely with podiatrists (foot doctors) may make castings of feet, expose and develop x rays, and help podiatrists in surgery.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2017 the median annual wage for medical assistants was $32,480. The median wage is considered the wage right in the middle of the entire range. Half the workers in any given population make more than that amount while the other half makes less. In reviewing the wages for medical assisting in May 2017, the bottom 10% of MAs earned less than $23,830 and the top 10% earned more than $45,900.

In May 2017, the median annual wages for medical assistants in the top industries where they were hired were:

Industry Median Annual Wage
Outpatient care centers $33,820
Hospitals: state, local and private $33,590
Offices of physicians $32,710
Offices of chiropractors $29,010

Most individuals who go into medical assisting do so because they they want to make a positive contribution to people in need of medical care. Almost all of them indicate they find the profession rewarding and that it was the best path for them to enter the field of health care. While some go on to become nurses, many will remain medical assistants for the duration of their career.

If you want to become a medical assistant, but wonder if your high school is giving you a good foundation, you can find out here: Is Your High School Curriculum Preparing You for a Medical Career?

If  you want to learn more about becoming a nurse, get an overview here: Associate Degree versus a Bachelor Degree in Registered Nursing.

Answer Questions to Discover Which Branch of Medicine Will Suit Your Personality Best

We will email a detailed report as well as a FREE Which Branch of Medicine e-Guide pdf

    Leave a Comment