Do you Want to Become a Medical Assistant?
Most choose to become certified through a formal training program, It is possible to become a medical assistant with only a high school diploma, but this requires finding an employer who will agree to provide on-the-job training. This may be difficult, as the majority of employers prefer to hire individuals who have completed a formal training program.
Relatively easy-to-meet prerequisites and extremely high demand for the position (the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 138,900 new jobs will be added in this profession by 2024) combine to make medical assisting one of the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. labor market. The position is considered highly-desirable among those who are interested in gaining general experience in healthcare prior to advancing into a more specialized area of medicine.
What is the process for becoming a medical assistant?
The process for becoming a medical assistant can be broken down into 5 steps.
- Decide if you want to get certified
- Choose between a diploma or an associate’s degree program
- Enroll in an accredited program
- Complete your clinical training
- Pass a national certification exam
What does a medical assistant do?
As a general rule of thumb, those who are employed at smaller facilities (e.g. a physician’s private practice) tend to hold a wider range of responsibilities, while those who work at hospitals, clinics, etc. usually specialize in either administrative or clinical tasks. In such situations, they are sometimes referred to as clinical medical assistants or administrative medical assistants.
Typical responsibilities held for both administrative and clinical medical assistants are listed below.
Administrative medical assistant duties
- Answer office telephones
- Greet patients and facilitate the check-in process
- Maintain medical records (updating, filing, etc.)
- Completing and filling out insurance forms
- Handling office correspondence (e.g. mail and email)
- Scheduling patient appointments
- Coordinating hospital admissions and laboratory services
- Assisting with billing and bookkeeping
Clinical medical assistant duties
- Recording patients’ medical histories
- Measuring and recording vital signs
- Explaining procedures and treatments to patients
- Preparing patients for the physician’s examination
- Assisting the physician during examinations
- Collecting and preparing specimens for laboratory tests
- Dispose of contaminated medical supplies
- Sterilization of medical instruments
- Prepare and administer medications (as directed by physician)
- Approve refills for prescribed medications
- Provide prescriptions to pharmacies
- Prepare patients for x-rays
- Remove sutures and change dressings on wounds
- Take electrocardiograms
How long does it take to become a medical assistant?
Without formal training – ASAP
Furthermore, the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) recently reported that the industry is rapidly moving toward only hiring certified medical assistants. This trend is due to a range of legal factors at the national and state levels, and the desire of employers to protect their interests by only employing professionally-certified healthcare personnel.
For these reasons, it is highly recommended that anyone who is considering a career in medical assisting should pursue formal training and certification.
With formal training and certification – 1-2 years
Becoming certified usually then requires an additional month or two after completing the program. The graduate must pass one of the nationally-recognized medical assistant certification exams. These are administered monthly at test sites throughout the country.
The amount of time required to complete this step depends on how soon the test taker feels ready to challenge for certification, and how many attempts are required to pass the exam.
Step 1: Decide if you want to get certified
Working as a non-certified medical assistant
A list of the major pros and cons for working as a non-certified medical assistant follows in the two boxes below.
- Able to start working right away with a high school diploma
- Save money by not going to school
- No need to take courses for periodic re-certification
- Fewer job opportunities
- Less opportunity for promotion
- Lower pay compared to certified peers
- Less job security than certified peers
Becoming a certified medical assistant
A list of the major pros and cons for becoming a certified medical assistant follows in the two boxes below.
- Greater job security
- More opportunities for advancement
- Higher pay than non-certified peers in many cases
- Eligibility for hire with more employers
- Requires two-to-three years of training and study
- Must pay for formal training and certification exam
- Need to periodically test for re-certification
- Some certifications are not recognized in every state
This is also true of employers who have previously hired non-certified assistants. In these instances, it is now quite common for the employer to require their medical assisting staff to enroll in training and earn their certification in order to remain employed.
If you still decide not to get certified, then your next step is to start applying for job openings for non-certified medical assistants. On the other hand, if you do decide to earn your certification, you will move on to Step 2 below.
Step 2: Choose between a diploma or associate degree program
Diploma or Certificate
Diploma or certificate programs can often be completed in a year or less, and focus their curriculum only on skills and knowledge needed to start working. These programs are offered through a variety of institutions, and may also be available online.
The pros and cons of choosing to earn a diploma or certificate are listed below.
- Most diploma or certificate courses can be completed in 9 to 12 months
- Programs focus only on the knowledge required to pass one of the national certification exams
- Tuition costs are generally significantly less than they are for associate degree programs
- Holding a diploma or certificate qualifies you for the majority of entry-level medical assistant positions
- Credits earned may not be transferable if you decide to pursue a degree at some point
- Training is not as comprehensive, so you probably won’t be able to work in specialized medicine
- Fewer opportunities for career advancement without additional schooling
- Lower starting salaries on average compared to those with associate degrees
Associate degree programs are generally two years in length, and the material covered is more comprehensive in scope. Programs offering this degree are usually hosted by junior colleges and trade schools, so there are usually also higher admission requirements that must be met.
Holding an associate degree does provide many advantages that one would not have with only a certificate or diploma, however.
The following is a quick look at the pros and cons of pursuing an associate degree in medical assisting.
- Many employers prefer to hire medical assistants with degrees over diplomas
- Those with associate degrees are sometimes offered higher starting salaries
- Credits earned studying for an associate degree can later be applied toward an advanced degree
- More likely to be hired for positions in specialized medicine
- Associate degree programs are at least twice as long as diploma programs
- Tuition costs for degree programs are usually significantly higher
- You’ll be required to complete general education classes outside your medical assisting curriculum
- Admission requirements for institutions that offer degree programs are tougher
If you’re interested in advancing quickly in your health care career, and have a longer-term goal in mind, then the additional time and money required to earn an associate degree may make sense for you.
Step 3: Enroll in an accredited program
(CAAHEP) Accredited Medical Assistant Programs
(ABHES) Accredited Medical Assistant Programs
At this point in the process, most prospective students wonder how to go about choosing a school. There are different ways to approach this problem, including: reading online reviews from ex-students, asking healthcare professionals in your area for advice, etc.
Because most people today look for schools and job training programs online, however, we’ve provided the following list of things to consider when researching schools yourself.
It goes without saying that the first thing you’ll need to look for in a program is its accreditation status. There are two national organizations that accredit medical assisting programs in the United States: the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Accreditation from one of these bodies means that an institution or program meets the organization’s minimum standards in curriculum, faculty and facilities. These standards are established in conjunction with the healthcare community to ensure that program graduates are prepared for the requirements of the medical assisting profession.
Make sure the program offers the credential you want (associate degree or diploma)
As was discussed under Step 2, there are two types of credentials one can earn when completing a medical assistant program – an associate degree or a diploma (called a “certificate” by some institutions). When comparing your options, make sure that you confirm that the programs you’re reviewing offer the type of credential you want.
Over the course of the one or two years spent studying to become a medical assistant, most students continue to juggle a number of other responsibilities. This may be caring for a child, working full-time, or any number of other things.
For this reason, it’s important to plan out the days and hours that you can devote to school in advance. You’ll then want to make sure that the programs you’re interested in offer courses that fit your schedule. If you want to see what the best medical assistant programs are, see our Top 30 CMA programs list.
About online medical assistant programs
One of the biggest trends in education over the last decade has been the explosion in distance learning. Many medical assistant programs have responded to student demand by offering the classroom-based portion of their training online.
This format allows students the convenience of completing a significant part of the program from the place and time of their choosing. The hands-on externship experience that accredited programs require will still need to be completed in-person, however.
To learn more about online programs, see our comprehensive guide to online medical assistant programs.
Because the cost of school is a major consideration for most students, you’ll want to gather as much specific information as possible on this subject before committing to a program. It is recommended that you request this information directly from school representatives.
Tuition costs for medical assistant training range from around $1,000 for many diploma courses, up to $4,000-or-more for two-year associate’s degree programs. Factors that can affect the different tuition costs you’ll find include: the reputation of the institution, whether or not you’re taking online classes, and local guidelines.
On a related topic, you should also look into the availability of financial aid from the institution. If you have concerns about the cost of the education, qualifying for financial assistance can help put your mind at ease.
Step 4: Complete your clinical training
While a set number of hours in a hands-on, clinical environment is a standard requirement for accredited programs, the actual amount required depends on the school itself. Some schools require as little as 40 hours of hands-on training, and others require 160 hours or more.
Regardless of the amount of time required, you will have to finish all of the mandated clinical training hours in order to graduate from your program. Be sure to take this requirement into consideration when choosing a school.
Step 5: Pass a national certification exam
While you may take any exam you wish, keep in mind that some of them certify you for different competencies. With that being the case, you should test for the certification that best fits your career goals.
Medical assistant certifications
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from AAMA
One of the best-known, and most-respected of the national medical assistant credentials, the CMA certification is sponsored by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). The credential represents a comprehensive range of competencies, and is accepted by most employers around the country.
Because this certification qualifies the individual for most medical assistant job openings, the CMA (AAMA) Exam covers these broad areas of knowledge:
- General medical knowledge
- Administrative knowledge
- Clinical knowledge
In order to be eligible to take the CMA (AAMA) Exam, you must graduate from a training program accredited by the CAAHEP or ABHES. Read more about program accreditation under Step 3.
National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from NCCT
The National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) certification is a nationally-recognized credential that qualifies its holder for a wide range of positions in medical assisting. It is sponsored by the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)
An individual can become eligible to challenge the NCMA Exam through any one of the following three means:
- Have graduated from a medical assistant program approved by NCCT (see their site for details) within the past five years
- Provide proof of full-time employment as a medical assistant in at least two of the past five years
- Have completed medical assistant training, or its equivalent, during military service within the past five years
Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) from NHA
The National Healthcareer Association (NHA) offers a certification specifically for medical assistants specifically interested in working in a clinical setting. The Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) credential represents a high level of competency in clinical patient care. It is ideal for those interested in working in hospitals, clinics and physicians’ offices.
Eligibility for the CCMA Exam has the following prerequisites:
- Hold a high school diploma or G.E.D.
- Have successfully completed an accredited medical assistant program in the last five years
- Have completed a formal health care training program during military service
NHA makes an exception for test eligibility in cases where the applicant has at least one year’s worth of unsupervised work experience as medical assistant over the past three years. In these cases, the other training prerequisites can be waived (not including the high school diploma or G.E.D.).
Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from NHA
If you’re interested in focusing on the administrative side of the medical assisting field, the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) offers a second certification for this purpose. The Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) certification represents advanced competencies in the tasks that are required in order to keep a healthcare facility’s office running smoothly.
To be eligible to sit for the CMAA Exam, you must meet the following requirements:
- Have a high school diploma or G.E.D.
- Have successfully completed an accredited medical assistant program in the last five years
- Have completed a formal health care training program during military service
As is the case with NHA’s other medical assistant certification exam (the CCMA), you may be able to waive all of the above eligibility requirements (except for being a high school graduate) if you have work experience. Individuals with at least one year’s worth of unsupervised experience as a medical assistant can challenge for certification without having completed a formal training program.
Preparing for your certification exam
After completing your accredited training program, you should be familiar with the information that will appear on any of the five major certification exams. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to review what you’ve learned and to quiz yourself, or have someone else quiz you before actually sitting for the exam.
Despite the fact that there are some differences between the different exams, the following content areas will appear on all of them. In the case of the RMA and CMA Exams, they each consist of three main sections titled General, Administrative, and Clinical.
For the NCMA, CCMA and CMAA Exams, this material makes up the exam as well, but is arranged into different categories.
Between 25% and 40% of each exam contains a section that deals with general topics covered during your training program.
This section does not deal specifically with administrative or clinical issues, but instead focuses on subjects like those listed to the right.
On average, another 25% of your exam will test your administrative knowledge. In the case of the CMAA exam, this section is the primary focus of the exam.
Topics to review when preparing for the administrative portion of your certification exam include:
With the exception of the aforementioned CMAA exam, each of the other national tests place between 35% and 50% of their focus on testing your clinical knowledge. Being highly familiar with this area is crucial to passing any medical assisting certification exam you take.
You should expect to see questions on the following topics in this section of your exam:
Patient intake and documentation of care
Patient preparation and assisting the provider
Collecting and processing specimens
First aid and emergency response
Medical assistant practice tests
CMA practice tests and study guide (AAMA)
RMA online practice tests (AMT)
NCMA practice tests (NCCT)
CCMA and CMAA study guides and practice tests (NHA)
Where to take the exam
Each of the five different national certification exams discussed in this guide are administered on a monthly basis at locations throughout the 50 states. Test sites are determined by the provider for each exam. An application and exam fee must be paid to the test provider before you can be scheduled for an upcoming exam.
Test providers and their associated fees for each certification exam are listed below. Contact the provider directly to find out about upcoming test dates and locations.
Test providers and fees
RMA Exam – Administered by PearsonVUE, $120 non-refundable exam fee is due to AMT at time of application
NCMA Exam – Administered by National Certification Medical Association (NCMA), $140 exam fee is due at time of application
CCMA Exam – Administered by PSI Exams Online, $155 exam fee is due at time of application
CMAA Exam – Administered by PSI Exams Online, $115 exam fee is due at time of application
Being ready on your exam day
As your exam date approaches, it’s normal to become anxious and maybe a little nervous as well. However, making sure that you’re prepared can alleviate this nervousness and help ensure that you have a successful outcome. To help facilitate this, it may be helpful to put together a checklist (like the one below) that you can use to structure your preparation and study time.
- Make sure that you bring your approved application and receipt for fees paid to the test site
- Take advantage of the official practice tests offered for your specific exam
- Always use a timer to stay within the recommended time guidelines while taking a practice test
- Know where the test center is located and plan to arrive at least 20 minutes early on test day
How long does it take to get your exam results?
The exact amount of time required to score, process and send the results from your certification exam will vary according to which exam you take, and who provides it. The stated wait times for results from each provider are listed below.
RMA Exam – Test provider PearsonVUE states that it submits final test scores 2-5 business days after the exam date. Your score can be viewed online once it is posted.
NCMA Exam – Test provider NCCT states that final exam scores are posted 1-2 business days after the exam, and are mailed within 7-10 business days.
CCMA and CMAA Exams – Test provider PSI states that your official test score will be provided to you before you leave the test site on the day of your exam.
When will you receive your certification?
Once you’ve received confirmation that you’ve passed your exam, you’ll still need to receive your certification card before you can start looking for jobs. The amount of time required to receive your card can vary according to a number of factors, but AAMA advises that you should expect to receive your certification within 9 weeks of being notified of your passing score.
Finding a job as a medical assistant
After passing your certification exam and receiving your card, you’ll be ready to find your first job as a medical assistant. You may already have a good idea of how to go about doing this, but the following may be useful to you nonetheless.
Where to look
There are several different approaches you can take to looking for a position as a medical assistant. Because your accredited training program included an externship, you may have already used that opportunity to network with prospective employers. Even if this is the case, it may still be worth your time to check out other options as well.
What type of healthcare setting is right for you?
Medical assistants are employed in a wide variety of different healthcare settings. Choosing one that fits your skills and interests is crucial to job satisfaction and advancing towards your career goals. For this reason, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the differences between these different work environments before deciding on one for your first job.
Some things to consider are:
- Do you like working in a fast-paced environment (e.g. a hospital) or in a more laid-back one (e.g. a clinic)?
- Do you want to work in a traditional healthcare setting, or be part of the medical staff in a non-traditional one (e.g. at a university)?
- Are you interested in transitioning into a different role later on? If so, you should find a job that gives you exposure to that role.
As is the case with most things we search for today, a good place to start looking for a medical assisting job is online. You can start by searching major job sites like Monster.com, Indeed.com and CareerBuilder.com. You may also look at the job listings on the sites for your local healthcare facilities.
Several of the most-common places to find medical assistant jobs appear below.
Places to look for medical assistant jobs
Pros: Lots of exposure to doctors and opportunities to learn, chances to perform multiple roles and gain broad experience.
Cons: Smaller team means less exposure to other professionals and fewer opportunities to network.
Pros: Wide range of available shifts, opportunities to network with many other healthcare professionals, good pay.
Cons: The fast-paced environment can be stressful.
Offices of other healthcare practitioners
Pros: Opportunities for those who want to specialize in a specific area of medicine, often higher pay than most other medical assistant employers.
Cons: Slower pace may not be for everyone, less exposure to general medical community.
What should be on your resume?
Having a well put together, clearly-targeted resume is important no matter which type of job you’re looking for. This is certainly the case when it comes to medical assisting.
Remember that the very this thing an employer will know about you is what is on your resume. For that simple reason, it is extremely important to ensure that you have a resume that makes a strong, positive first impression. It should also reflect your professionalism as a person – even if you are applying for your first job in healthcare.
A good medical assistant resume should include:
- Contact information – full name, address, phone number and emai
- Your career objective – one or two sentences describing who you are, and why you want the job
- Skills and qualifications – list out your personal skills that would make you a good medical assistant, any qualifications you earned during training, and information on your certification
- Education – list each school you’ve attended in reverse chronological order – starting with the training program you just completed
- Work experience – list your clinical externship experience and dates, as well as any other relevant work experience
- Personal references – list at least two professional references
Prepare for interviews
After sending out your applications and resumes, you should start preparing yourself for job interviews. Below are a few basic guidelines you should follow to help you with your preparation.
Be ready to answer common questions
As you are probably aware, there are some basic questions that most employers ask job applicants during an interview. Practicing how you’ll answer these questions can give you greater confidence as you walk into the interview, and can also impress the employer with your thoughtfulness and preparation.
Examples of common interview questions
“Tell us about yourself”
“Why did you decide to become a medical assistant?”
“What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
“Tell us about a time you had to do something difficult”
Prepare your own questions
Most people spend the majority of their time preparing for an interview by thinking about the questions the employer will ask them. This misses an important opportunity, as most employers are more impressed by the questions a candidate asks them than by the answers they give.
Therefore, it’s imperative that you put together a short list of questions you have about the position, facility, etc. and be prepared to ask them at the interview. You should not, however, ask the interviewer about salary, benefits, etc. Some interviewers view this negatively, so it’s usually a better idea to allow them to bring these subjects up.
Examples of questions to ask the employer
“How long is the training period here?”
“What is the greatest challenge for those who work here?”
“Are there opportunities for additional education and professional development?”
“Can I see the facility?”
How to dress and what to bring
While wearing professional business attire is certainly not necessary (after all, medical assistants do usually wear scrubs at work), clean, well-cared for “business casual” style clothing is a must. You will also want to bring a few things that will further display your professional approach to the interview.
Things to bring to the interview
- A notebook and pen or pencil
- Additional copies of your resume
- Your medical assistant certification card
- Proof of any additional qualifications you carry, or achievements from training
- Letters of recommendation
Following up after the interview
It’s always a good practice to follow-up with the employer after a job interview. This helps separate you from the majority of candidates who do not take the time for this basic step.
The first part of this process actually begins during the interview itself. Make sure to write down the name of everyone who interviewed you. This allows you to follow-up with them later.
If you really want the position, it’s a good practice to send a formal “thank you” letter one or two days after the interview. In this letter, you should repeat what was discussed during the interview, and restate your enthusiasm for the position.
About medical assistant salary
To get a fairly accurate idea of how much you can expect to be paid as a medical assistant, you will need to do some research. This is particularly true if you’re just starting out in the field.
What is the average salary for a medical assistant?
Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ last official report in May 2016, the national median salary for medical assistants was $31,540. The following tables reflect how this number varies according to the state you work in, your experience, and your employer.
Medical assistant salary by state
|State||Hourly mean wage||Annual mean wage|
Salary by employer type
|Employer Type||Median Hourly Wage||Median Annual Salary|
|Offices of Physicians||$15.76||$32,780|
|Offices of Other Health Practitioners||$14.26||$29,660|
|Outpatient Care Centers||$16.83||$35,020|
|Assisted Living Facilities||$13.09||$27,240|
Salary by experience
|Experience||Median Hourly Wage||Median Annual Salary|
What is the job outlook for medical assistants?
The nation’s healthcare system is expanding at an unprecedented rate, thanks to record numbers of insured Americans and the large number of seniors currently in the population. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 591,000 medical assistants are projected to be employed in the United States by 2024.
Similar to salary, the job outlook for medical assistants varies by state. The following table illustrates the growth rate in new medical assistants positions in every state through 2024.
Medical assistant job outlook by state through 2024
|State Name||Total Jobs 2014||Projected Jobs 2024||% Change|
Not sure if you want to become a medical assistant?
Do you want to work in healthcare, but aren’t sure if the medical assisting field is for you? If so, there are several similar career options you may want to consider.
Below we’ve provided comparisons between medical assistants and other similar healthcare positions that may interest you.
Medical assistant vs Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
The certified nursing assistant (CNA) is a basic care provider who works alongside registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) in many of the same facilities that employ medical assistants. Like medical assistants, they generally earn a certification prior to becoming employed. Their responsibilities, training and salary are all quite different, however.
Differences in responsibilities
Medical assistants may work directly under a physician in clinical settings, or work somewhat independently in an administrative support role. Nursing assistants, on the other hand, work exclusively in clinical settings where they provide basic patient care under the supervision of higher-level nurses such as RNs and LPNs.
Unlike medical assistants, CNAs are not permitted to administer medications, give patients injections, or handle blood samples for testing. The majority of their duties involve monitoring and providing comfort for patients who are hospitalized, or limited in their abilities to leave their homes.
Differences in training and pay
Certified nursing assistants do not require as much education and training as medical assistants. Whereas most medical assistant certification programs last at least one year, the typical nursing assistant program can often be completed in just a matter of months.
As a result of the lower barriers to entry, certified nursing assistant salaries are proportionately lower than medical assistants. The national median pay for CNAs was $26,590 in May 2016 per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Medical Assistant vs Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), or Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) are members of the nursing profession who often work directly under the supervision of Registered Nurses (RNs).
They are employed in many of the same facilities as medical assistants, but focus exclusively on patient care and supporting the RNs in their duties.
Differences in responsibilities
There is very little crossover in the responsibilities of the LPN and the medical assistant. In cases where the medical assistant is responsible for clinical duties there may be similar patient monitoring tasks involved. However, the reporting structure and protocols followed tend to differ as the LPN reports to higher-level nurses while the medical assistant may report to non-nursing medical professionals.
Differences in training and pay
Both LPNs and LVNs must be licensed by their state in order to be eligible for employment. Like medical assistant training, the education required to become eligible to test for licensure as an LPN or LVN usually lasts for about one year.
With the additional education requirements and responsibilities come significantly higher pay for LPNs. According to the May 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses was $44,090.
Medical Assistant vs Medical Records and Health Information Technicians
If you are interested in the administrative duties performed by medical assistants but aren’t sure if you want to work on the clinical side, the medical records and health information technician position may be an alternative.
This class of medical field professionals includes medical billers and coders and medical transcriptionists. Both of these professionals are responsible for maintaining healthcare data, as well as other data management tasks.
Differences in responsibilities
While some administrative medical assistants may handle medical data, their responsibilities are usually limited to its storage and sharing with necessary medical partners.
Medical billers and coders are responsible for converting physicians’ notes (provided by the medical transcriptionist) into codes and documents that can be used for insurance purposes.
Differences in training and pay
The amount of education required to become a medical records and health information technician is similar in that both positions require the completion of an approximately one-year formal training course and a passing score on a certification exam. That is usually where the similarities end, however.
While medical assistant training does include a significant amount of memorization and theory, it also involves a clinical component that uses and externship to develop hands-on skills. Billers and coders and transcriptionists, on the other hand, focus almost entirely on memorizing codes, procedures and documentation processes.
The pay for these technicians is usually significantly higher than what is paid to medical assisting personnel. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2016 report, that the national median annual wage for medical records and health information technicians was $38,040.