What Do Medical Assistants Do?
The scope of work of a medical assistant is often a point of confusion for novice aspirants. It is because many states do not license MAs or outrightly define their scope of functions by law. However, it should be noted that in today’s medical landscape, medical assistants are immensely demanded as they perform duties crucial to a patient’s health and care.
Medical Assisting involves discharging a variety of specialized tasks. These are cross-functional across clinical and administrative domains. On the introduction of more tech-based healthcare systems, the roles, duties, and responsibilities rendered to the medical assistants are further increasing in heaps and bounds.
Common Medical Assistant Job Duties
As discussed above, a complex mix of duties is performed by the medical assistants across a range of healthcare settings (medical offices, private clinics, hospitals, ambulatory services, senior citizen care facilities, and more).
No two days may be the same for medical assistants. On one day, they may be welcoming patients into the center, while on the other day, they may be drawing blood or preparing them for medical procedures. One day they might be organizing the facility’s stock room moving around heavy boxes, while the next day, they may be entering patient data into the software relentlessly.
They are geared with skills to assist across all sorts of essential functions. These critical duties can be classified into:
Clinical Job Duties
Even though not doctors or physicians themselves, MAs are adept at carrying out primary clinical functions that are crucial to the patient’s welfare. With these functions not being handled as per the required standards, the entire medical ecosystem can fall like a pack of cards. Thus, these clinical duties form the very basis of all healthcare services. These significant functions are central to healthcare and include (but are not limited to):
- Recording medical history of patients: Looking into what past medical experiences the patient has had, which medications have already been administered, any genetic disease history or pre-disposed factors, etc.
- Checking vital signs of patients: Checking temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, heart rate, etc.
- Preparing patients for examination by the doctor: Helping them into the right uniforms and medical gear when the need may be. Explaining them about do’s and don’ts of the process
- Preparing patients for x-rays and other diagnostic procedures: Instructing patients with regards to diet or any other requirements that these diagnostic tests may demand
- Assisting the doctors in dealing with patients: Helping patients into the chamber and helping the physician in examing the patient at hand
- Drawing blood: Executing so using the aptest techniques mastered during training before the job
- Changing dressings: First aid and removal of stitches too
- Collecting specimens for the laboratory: Taking blood samples and urine samples to carry out essential lab procedures
- Patient instruction on prescribed medications and diets: Teaching the ideal way of taking the prescribed meds; sharing specific eating and drinking do’s and don’ts
- Explaining treatment procedures and protocols: Patients can be confused about what they’re in for, and doctors always don’t have the time to go over the details multiple times. Here, MAs are of great help informing the concerned patients about what to expect out of the treatment.
- Taking electrocardiograms: ECG or EKG is integral to many medical functions; MAs are schooled how to perform these crucial tasks with high accuracy
- Preparing doses and refills of prescribed medications: MAs are also trained in pharmacology. They’re taught with some experience to prepare medicines as prescribed by the supervising physician
The key difference between other healthcare professionals and medical assistants is that MAs are not only restricted with clinical responsibilities but perform those day to day duties too that keep the operations of a medical center running. Proper management of the center alongside the coordination of crucial functions across domains is done by these professionals. Such admin-related tasks are essential for the smooth functioning of the healthcare system as a whole and include:
- Electronic Health Recording (where applicable): Most medical establishments today entrust MAs with EHR responsibilities, thanks to the technological advancement in the field of Medicine
- Medical Coding: Coding patient histories and records into the software
- Billing and managing payments: Creating bills and managing invoices
- Managing medical insurances: Filling medical insurance forms, advocating on behalf of patients for their medical claims, etc.
- Answering the phone and attending to telephonic inquiries: Taking calls when the doctor is busy, answering key queries, talking to new patients, and guiding them through the onboarding process
- Reception duties, greeting patients at the front desk: Being the first point of contact for all who enter the establishment and helping them with their specific needs
- Showing patients their way around the facility: Ensuring patients find the right chamber or examination room amidst long stretches of corridors and floors
- Managing appointments and scheduling new ones: Using the establishments scheduling systems to create an organized layout of all appointments for the doctor
- Managing office supplies: Assessing stocks of essential supplies and arranging for refills when needed
Patient Care and Assessment
One of the critical competencies that medical assistants are trained across is behavioral skills to guide and communicate with patients in the aptest manner and as per industry protocol. Patients are central to the healthcare sector, and assistants directly take care of them while carrying out key assessments, ensuring ideal diagnosis and treatment designs. Such functions include:
- Making the patient feel comfortable: Drawing on psychology modules trained across programs for the same
- Explaining them about the treatments in place: Information disclosure and putting patients at ease
- Attending to patient queries and discomforts amidst the procedures: Being there for the patients compassionately as they face the treatment processes
- Assessing the mental capacities of patients and carrying out necessary tests: Helping acquire primary assessment data to guide the diagnosis of the doctor
Additional Day to Day Responsibilities
Apart from the above duties, MAs may need to fill in for miscellaneous tasks at hand if required. They put together the center and discharge important functions as the need may be to keep the practice running. These tasks can include:
- Transportation of equipment (if needed): Organizing for logistics and coordinating the same
- Lifting and carrying heavy objects around: MAs are usually required to be physically fit so that they can perform such tasks
- Stepping out to buy any vital supplies: When there is an urgent lack of supplies crucial to patient care, medical assistants might need to help out personally
- Disposing of contaminated supplies: Following protocol disposal techniques used for toxic substances
Duties by Specialized Medical Assistants
Apart from the above duties, another set of MAs called ‘specialized medical assistants’ choose a specific area of work where they perform key functional responsibilities related to the field. For instance:
- Ophthalmic medical assistants and optometric assistants perform eye care duties. They guide patients on the correct ways of wearing lenses, cleaning, and removing them. They assist ophthalmologists in eye surgeries.
- Podiatric medical assistants assist in foot-related ailment treatments. They construct feet castings and assist in conducting x-rays of the foot, along with helping podiatrists in surgery.
Working Environment and Conditions for Medical Assistants
Atmosphere and Shift Hours
The atmosphere at medical facilities, as we all are aware of, is well-lit and kept clean at all times. Most MAs work full time (over 40 hours in a week), however, some may choose part-time undertakings, evening hours or night shifts. As an MA, you would be amidst a large set of people; thus, interactive communication environments are to be expected. It is a customer-service-centric working environment with many responsibilities being required to be handled at the same time.
Medical facilities are always open, and shifts for professionals in this stream are dependent on the likes of emergencies, patient requirements, etc. Thus, MAs work during the nights as well as on holidays to cover shifts that are always open in the world of healthcare.
However, unlike physicians, MAs can sometimes pick the kind of working condition they would prefer. For instance, if a dynamic and fast-paced environment acts as the major motivator for you and if you’re okay to be available at odd hours when needed, you can opt for a large scale hospital or urgent care facility as your job setting.
If you would like a fixed 9 to 5 job so that you can still preserve your social life, you can opt for smaller private medication clinics or medical insurance office settings. If you adore being around senior citizens and want to give back to society, you can choose to work across retirement community centers. If a more personal bond with the patients motivates you, opt for private practices and clinics.
The sheer varied nature of medical assisting often paves the way for many opportunities to help MAs choose their preferred employment conditions and work-life balance. It is quite significant as rarely does the healthcare profession provides this luxury to its workforce.
Types of Work Settings
If we talk about statistics, in the US, most (57% of all employed MAs) are working in the offices of physicians (a more up close and personal environment). It is followed by 15% working in hospitals (state, local, and private). Moreover, 8% of the country’s medical assistants are employed across outpatient care environments and 4% in chiropractor work settings.
Quality/Skill Requirements for Medical Assistant Job
As must be clear by now, medical assistants need to showcase and hone not one specialized skill or two but a mammoth of cross-functional qualities and capabilities. The first vital skills that MAs imbibe are the clinical and technical ones. These are stressed across medical assisting training right from the first day through theory and practicals. At your workplace too, your employer shall expect you to have acquired these mechanical skills from the very outset. These capabilities include but are not limited to:
- Basic Life Support (BLS), CPR, and Pharmacology
- Administering injections and applying dressings
- Carrying out tests on blood samples and urine diagnosis
- Performing EKGs and much more
Alongside these clinical skills, administrative capabilities are further essential at an MA job setting. These include managing software, organizing the workplace, and ensuring the smooth functioning of all processes:
- Utilize jobs transcription and record-keeping skills
- Typing skills (with good speed) are essential
- Computer and accounting skills are also must
- Electronic health recording capabilities are increasingly required nowadays
- Insurance form filling skills, and more
Other than these, extremely significant competencies are required from medical assistants at all times. These are majorly behavioral qualities that MAs need to keep in mind while performing their duties:
- Excellent communication skills are crucial (both in-person and on email/paper). Communication capabilities are honed across your training as a medical assistant on every day of the program. It is one of the essential qualities to possess as an MA as all patient-interaction is based on this one competency. From putting your patients at ease and answering telephonic inquiries to advocating with insurance companies and sending across official emails, the communication qualities of a medical assistant have to be primarily on point.
- Digital literacy is also essential in today’s tech-oriented workplaces. Not only necessary computer skills are required, but digital opportunities are to be utilized to take your medical employer’s practice even further.
- Behavioral qualities of reliability: As a medical assistant, you shall be entrusted with a patient’s life and much confidential information. Your employer shall not put you on the job unless he/she is fully convinced of your trustworthiness.
- Commitment to accuracy: Attention to detail quality is sought at work where MAs are expected to perform all duties with a 100% accuracy. There is no scope for negligence or errors in the medical world.
- A well-organized nature also comes in handy at the job of an MA. There are tons of duties to manage across domains, and much coordination is required on the part of medical assistants. If one does not possess various organizational abilities, things can go haywire super fast.
- Self-control, patience, and calm disposition: When dealing with patients, you can never lose your cool. Crunch situations are bound to arise, but a medical assistant can never let their emotions get the better of them. A calm, composed, and always in control disposition is of utmost significance at the medical workplaces.
- Manual dexterity is essential as delicate medical equipment has to be dealt with. Fine motor skills, mainly the apt coordination of your hands, fingers, and eyes, are a must when practicing as an MA. One mistake and the medical gear may break, or the diagnosis may go completely wrong. Thus, this quality is actively sought and tested by employers before hiring.
- The MA is also required to have problem-solving skills and be able to work well in teams of varied professionals. Exceptional interpersonal skills and sometimes even an outgoing nature can help you build good working relations with colleagues, seniors, and patients alike. Teamwork is important as a medical setting is a people-centric environment, and each patient has a team of professionals helping them get through their difficulties. You cannot be on your own in this profession.
Medical Assistant Do’s and Dont’s
While medical assistants perform a magnanimous range of tasks, it is essential to observe that they have to follow the scope of their work. Out of this scope, they cannot and must not carry out duties. While distinct states may define the different range of tasks for MAs working under their jurisdiction, in general, these are the norms to be followed:
What Can a Medical Assistant Do?
- Assist doctors and physicians with examination procedures of patients, and minor surgeries
- Administer medications (only under the direct supervision of a licensed physician)
- Liaison between the physician and patient
- Maintain patient records
- Collect samples for lab diagnostics
- Prepare testing rooms
- Ready up key instruments for the physician
- Schedule patient-doctor meetings and calls
- Motivate and comfort patients and their loved ones
What are the Don’ts for Medical Assistants?
While the do’s of medical assistants must be quite clear to you by now, the below-mentioned don’ts are also crucial to keep in mind. These pointers outline duties that fall out of the scope of practice of MAs. Under no circumstances (unless specified by their state legislature) should a medical assistant engage in any of these functions (punishable by law):
- ‘Diagnose’ or ‘treat’ a patient. It is valid for both face-to-face interactions as well as telephonic and online formats. They can only assist in the treatment and check for vital signs that shall help the doctor in his/her diagnosis.
- Draw conclusions from medical test results and reports, or thereby advise patients about the same.
- Prescribe any medications. They can only prepare doses and collate meds as per the doctor’s prescribed protocol.
- Use laser equipment.
- Administer anesthesia or IV medication to patients.
- Distribute free portions of the medication from the workplace.
- Render physical therapy in the absence of a supervising therapist.
However, please observe that where you live also decides what you may do and what you may not as an MA. State regulations may enable you to perform some additional functions too. For instance, specialized training is rendered in California for these add-on support services to all medical assistants). In Alaska, for example, MAs may be able to administer IV medications when delegated by the supervising nurse practitioner.
Thus, like in any other profession, medical assisting has many facets to learn about and research on. Overall, the profession is exciting, dynamic, and soul satiating. More importantly, it is one of the most demanded fields of work across the United States at present, with a whirlpool of employment opportunities and unprecedented growth year on year. Perhaps the most reliable career stream today and also the quickest stepping stone into the world of medicine, medical assistants can be assured of very promising futures ahead.
Written by : Casey Gardner
Casey Gardner is both a healthcare support professional and an accomplished content creator. She has been working as a certified health care professional with marketable skills as a physician assistant, and a qualified medical assistant for last two decades. She has dedicated her nursing career to produce over hundreds of content pieces since 2001, and her work has been published both online as well as offline.