What Is a Medical Assistant and How Do You Become One?
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Medical Assistants: How Training and Certification Can Improve Your Job Prospects and Increase Your Income

By Laura Horwitz
Published on December 7, 2009.

Job Duties

Medical assistants are an essential part of the health profession. They keep the offices of physicians going. If you work as a medical assistant at a smaller practice, you might do both administrative and clinical duties, while at a larger practice you're more likely to specialize in one particular area.

Administrative duties include filling out insurance forms, arranging for hospital admissions or laboratory services, updating and filing patients' records, scheduling appointments, answering phones, and taking care of the billing and bookkeeping.

Clinical duties, by contrast, can vary among the States since some have stricter laws than others regarding what medical assistants can do. However, those duties can include taking medical histories, explain procedures to patients, preparing patients for an exam, assisting a physician during an exam, or even recording vital signs and performing basic procedures such as drawing blood, removing sutures, or taking electrocardiograms.

You can also choose to specialize in one area, for instance as an ophthalmic or podiatric medical assistant. In specialized roles, you take on additional tasks. For instance, an ophthalmic medical assistant measures and records vision, tests eye muscle function, conducts diagnostic tests, and applies eye dressings.

Job Skills

You must be comfortable dealing with both patients and physicians, which requires excellent communication skills. Since medical assistants are generally responsible for the waiting area, you must be well groomed and professional to properly greet people as they arrive. Medical information is also confidential, meaning you must be able to keep a secret and be discrete. Finally, if you take on clinical duties, you need agile hands and sharp vision.


The average medical assistant earns $29,060 annually, however medical assistants in certain industries can average far more. For instance, the annual mean salary for medical assistants at psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals is $43,390. Overall, the bottom 10 percentof medical assistants earn less than $20,600, while the top 10 percent earn over $39,570.

Training and Education

You can choose to attend a 1-year training program culminating in a certificate or diploma, or a 2-year training program that awards an associate degree. These programs can be found at vocational schools, community, or junior colleges, and courses typically include:

  • Accounting
  • Anatomy
  • Insurance processing
  • Medical law and ethics
  • Medical terminology
  • Physiology
  • Transcription

Depending on the program, you may also study clinical and diagnostic procedures, laboratory techniques, and first aid. Some programs also arrange internships so you can get practical experience in a hospital, physician's office, or health care facility.

Voluntary certifications exist that show employers you've reached a certain level of proficiency. If you want to specialize in one area, like optometry or podiatry, you can also get certificated in that area. The certification process varies depending on which agency you go through and which certification you want to pursue.


As of 2008, 475,950 medical assistants worked in the U.S. 62 percent of them worked in the offices of physicians, 12 percent worked in hospitals, and 11 percent worked for other health practitioners like optometrists, chiropractors, and podiatrists. The remainder found jobs in other health care industries, like outpatient care centers or residential care facilities.

Job Outlook

Employment of medical assistants is expected to grow by 35 percent from 2006-2016, which is much faster than the national average for all occupations. That means by 2016, 565,000 medical assistant jobs should exist. The health care industry itself is also growing at a rapid pace, fueling this job growth. And medical assistants work primarily in outpatient services, which is one of the faster growing segments of the health care industry.

Job applicants with formal training, prior experience, or certification should have the best opportunities.

About the Author
Laura Horwitz has worked as a freelance writer and researcher for five years in both London and the U.S.
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