What is a Medical Assistant

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According to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), a medical assistant is an allied health professional who assists doctors and physicians in ambulatory and outpatient care facilities, such as clinics and medical offices. Also known as healthcare assistants and clinical assistants, these professionals work under the direct supervision of physicians and perform routine administrative and clinical duties. In a nutshell, medical assistants bridge the gap between physicians and licensed nurses.

What do Medical Assistants do?

Medical assistants perform several tasks of clinical and administrative nature. However, their job responsibilities differ in different healthcare settings. Here, we have described the duties of these professionals in clinics and hospitals.

Medical Assistant Duties in Hospitals

As many ailments and medical conditions are treated in hospitals, the scope of practice for medical assistants is broad in these settings. At least one medical assistant is employed in every department of the hospital. They perform the following tasks:

Clinical Duties:

  • Measuring and recording vital signs, such as blood pressure, temperature, pulse rate, weight, etc.
  • Helping patients with bathing, grooming, and other activities of daily living
  • Assisting patients with recommended exercises and therapies
  • Transporting patients from one location to another in the hospital, using a hospital bed or wheelchair
  • Administering procedures, treatments, mediations, and vaccines as per the instructions of the physicians
  • Performing specialized testing, such as hearing and vision screening tests, EKGs, etc.
  • Preparing patients for diagnostic tests
  • Assisting doctors in minor medical procedures

Clerical Duties:

  • Responding to phone calls
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Confirming the reason for the visit of the patients and interviewing them for verification of information
  • Ensuring that files of patients are complete before and after each visit
  • Collecting data from patients about their previous surgical, medical, and health history and keeping their information confidential
  • Performing medical coding and billing tasks
  • Helping patients in filling insurance forms
  • Maintaining medical inventory and supplies
  • Disinfecting the medical equipment and devices, ensuring they are working properly
  • Maintaining the cleanliness and hygiene of the facility in compliance with legal regulations
  • Educating the patients and their family members about the treatment plan
  • Complying with the state, local, and federal requirements; procedures and policies of the facility; and professional standards
  • Updating job knowledge by reading professional publications and educational opportunities

Medical Assistants Duties in Clinics

Compared to hospitals, clinics focus on a specific medical condition, such as gynecology, pediatrics, dermatology, etc. Allergy clinics, chiropractic clinics, express clinics, etc. cater to particular ailments, and so, medical assistants working in these settings have entirely different tasks. Some of the standard functions performed by these professionals are as follows:

  • Welcoming and greeting patients
  • Using computer applications to maintain patients’ records
  • Scheduling follow-up appointments
  • Drawing blood and taking ECGs
  • Collecting and preparing lab specimen
  • Arranging for hospital admissions
  • Changing dressings and removing sutures
  • Performing preventative measures and troubleshooting breakdowns
  • Making arrangements for surgeries
  • Performing office procedures to save physicians’ time

What Qualifications are Required to Become a Medical Assistant?

Potential medical assistants are supposed to fulfill the following requirements to perform their jobs effectively and competently.

Education Requirements:

Certification Requirements:

There is no requirement of certification for entry-level medical assistant jobs. However, some states require professionals performing specialized medical tasks to have certification recognized at the national level. Further, a certification signifies your skills and commitment and increases your chances of getting hired by the employer.

Medical assistants can pursue any of the following national certifications:

State Requirements:

Each state in the USA has its own set of requirements for medical assistants. Some states also have strict guidelines related to the scope of working of MAs. For instance,

  • Some states require aspirants to complete additional training and obtain certification to perform specific tasks.
  • The Medical Board of California requires potential medical assistants to complete a minimum of 10 clock hours of training and 10 types of injection or skin tests under the supervision of an experienced medical professional. Only after fulfilling this requirement they will be allowed to perform skin punctures or venipuncture and administer medication by intradermal, subcutaneous, and intramuscular injections.
  • In Montana, medical assistants are not allowed to administer blood by IV and injections and perform any invasive procedures.

Job Requirements:

Job requirements depend on the facility with which these professionals work and their area of specialization. As medical assistants have to perform various clinical and administrative duties, they must possess the following skills:

  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Empathy and compassion
  • Detail-oriented
  • Analytical skills
  • Critical thinking

Certification and Licensing Requirements

Although the law doesn’t bound medical assistants to possess certification or license, they can earn the certificate to add value to their resume and increase their employability. You must have 18 years of age and a high school diploma to be eligible for the certification program. This program can be completed in 6 months to a year. After graduating from the program, you are required to pass the exam organized by the national-level certifying agency.

As mentioned above, different types of licensure and certification are available for the aspirants. You can also earn the following specialty certifications:

To make an informed decision and choose the certification program that best fits your personal and professionals goals, you must take into account the following considerations:

  • Practical aspects such as distance, cost, and test-taking procedures
  • Specific requirements by your state
  • Accreditation of the program
  • Certifications preferred by the employers
  • Area of your interest
  • The class size and student-to-instructor ratio
  • Job placement assistance or financial aid
  • The percentage of students who have successfully graduated from the program

Where do Medical Assistants Work?

Medical assistants have a wide range of options to choose their workplace. Each work setting comes with its pros and cons, so you must wisely pick the one that perfectly matches your life goals and unique preferences.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2019, 57% of medical assistants worked in offices of physicians; 15% in local, state, and private hospitals; 8% worked in outpatient care centers, and 4% worked in offices of chiropractors.

Clinical medical assistants can work in psychiatric & behavioral health, retirement homes, dermatology offices, cardiology offices, ophthalmology offices, long-term care facilities, etc. Administrative medical assistants can work in medical billing and coding departments, weight loss centers, pediatric offices, etc.

Below is the list of facilities where these professionals can render their duties.

  1. Nursing Care Facilities

    If you are willing to provide care to senior citizens and aging baby boomers, you can work at nursing homes and assisted living centers. They help patients in day-to-day activities, such as bathing, grooming, feeding, etc. They also take vital signs, maintain hygiene, manage medical records, etc. As these facilities are open 24/7, you don’t have fixed working hours, and you may be asked to work in rotating shifts.

  2. Hospitals

    Hospitals offer medical assistants with immense opportunities to learn a multitude of skills. As hospitals provide treatment for various diseases and medical conditions, you can explore your career interests working with talented professionals. Hospitals generally offer lucrative salary packages and strong job stability to their employees.

    If you can work for longer hours (overnights, nights, holidays, and weekends) and manage stress, working in hospitals will be personally satisfying for you. You will have a broader scope of practice and plenty of employment opportunities.

  3. Diagnostic Laboratories

    If you prefer to have less direct contact with patients, you can choose to work in diagnostic laboratories. The diagnostic clinics receive specimen samples from hospitals and clinics. As a medical assistant, your tasks are to test these samples, record the results, and manage data inputs. In these settings, you perform administrative duties.

  4. Colleges and Universities

    Some larger educational institutes have their clinics and hospitals. These institutes hire medical assistants to offer patient care services to the patients visiting their clinics and hospitals.

    Universities and colleges can also hire medical assistants as full-time instructors to provide training and education to the next-gen medical assistants. The requirements to become a medical assistant instructor depend on your employer; some prefer to recruit the candidate with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree while some prefer the candidates having a master’s degree.

  5. Insurance Carriers

    Insurance companies hire medical assistants to leverage their medical knowledge to offer the best services to their policyholders. MAs perform administrative work such as resolving queries of policyholders, coordinating with medical billing offices, inputting data, etc. Your work in regular business hours. Some employers may require you to have prior experience in medical assisting.

  6. Medical Research Centers

    In medical research centers, medical assistants assist researchers who are working for the advancement of the medical sector. Their job duties include signing in research participants, administering tests, labeling the diagnostic specimens, making arrangements for their shipping, etc. MAs in these work settings have predictable working hours.

  7. Outpatient Care Centers

    Outpatient care centers offer medical services to patients who are not suffering from life-threatening diseases and do not require overnight stays. These medical facilities generally perform lab tests and minor surgeries. The duties of medical assistants at the workplace include assisting physicians with X-rays, taking vital signs of patients, and performing administrative tasks.

    Working at the outpatient care centers is less stressful and hectic than working at hospitals. There are fixed shift hours; however, some outpatient facilities may offer services on weekends and evenings.

  8. Clinics

    Depending on your specialization, you can work with clinics offering treatments for specific medical conditions, such as pediatrics, gynecology, dermatology, etc. You can work at allergy clinics, chiropractic clinics, express clinics, etc. In these settings, medical assistants perform some specialized tasks in addition to everyday tasks, such as drawing blood, taking ECGs, making arrangements for surgical procedures, etc.

    • Obstetrics and Gynecology (OBGYN)If you are interested in women’s health, you can work with experienced gynecologists. As an OBGYN medical assistant, you can expect regular working hours. Your primary responsibilities include ordering and stocking of supplies, ensuring cleanliness and safety of the facility, maintaining records, answering the phone, etc.
    • Pediatric ClinicsWorking as a pediatric medical assistant will be a rewarding career choice if you want to provide care to toddlers, infants, and children. For rendering services as a pediatric MA, you must have a calm demeanor, strong know-how of children’s emotional and intellectual development, critical thinking skills, empathy, and excellent communication skills.
    • Chiropractors’ OfficesIf you have good computer skills, knowledge of medical documentation, understanding of patient privacy, and HIPAA, you can work as a chiropractic assistant to help chiropractor in providing patient care. You perform clinical and administrative tasks in the chiropractor’s office, such as receiving phone calls, preparing rooms for chiropractic procedures, taking X-rays, checking-in patients, etc.
  9. Emergency Departments/Urgent Care

    Hospitals and other healthcare facilities have emergency rooms/departments for which they hire medical assistants to provide urgent care. Emergency care medical assistants work in a stressful and fast-paced working environment. They may have to work on weekends, holidays, evenings, and nights. They may also be asked to work overtime. Their tasks include stabilizing the patients, transporting them, taking vital signs, preparing exam rooms, etc.

  10. Physician’s Office

    Medical assistants at the physician’s office assist doctors in providing primary medical care. They perform a wide range of tasks, including greeting patients upon their arrival, filing paperwork, taking and recording patients’ information, specimen collection, sanitizing exam rooms, etc.

What Types of Jobs Can a Medical Assistant Get?

Depending on your knowledge, skills, and specialization, you can avail of various employment opportunities. You can become a clinical office manager, clinical team leader, medical office manager, lead medical assistant, transcription supervisor, executive medical office secretary, etc.

  • Pediatric Medical AssistantIf you love working with infants, toddlers, and children up to 18 years and have a good understanding of their physical and mental growth, you can work as a pediatric medical assistant. You must have a calm demeanor, patience, endurance, empathy, and good communication skills to reduce the fear of children and make their visit to the hospital a pleasant experience.
  • Chiropractic Medical AssistantThese professionals help chiropractors in providing treatments and therapies to patients to treat their medical conditions. You must have strong knowledge of medical vernacular, filing techniques, and computer skills. As a chiropractic medical assistant, you perform both clerical and clinical duties, including managing inventory, updating medical records, greeting patients, etc.
  • Occupational Therapy AssistantOccupational therapy assistants work with people of all ages suffering from down syndrome, cerebral palsy, behavioral problems, Alzheimer’s disease, and other disabilities, helping them exercise and their day-to-day activities. These professionals may work in community centers, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and other facilities.
  • Obstetrics/GynecologyOB/GYN medical assistants assist physicians in promoting women’s health. These professionals aid in minor gynecological surgery, breast examination, Pap testing, and providing care to expecting women. They also educate women about menstruation hygiene, pre-natal and post-natal care, etc.
  • PhlebotomistPhlebotomists may work in nursing homes, blood donation centers, clinical laboratories, doctors’ offices, etc. They draw blood for donations, transfusions, or medical testing by performing venipuncture. They also collect and process blood specimens in hospitals, sterilize the medical equipment, and perform many other tasks.
  • Anesthesiologist AssistantThese professionals work under the strict supervision of anesthesiologists. They maintain the electronic health records of the patients, perform airway management, drug and administration during surgery, etc.
  • Pharmacy TechnicianPharmacy technicians may work in hospitals, grocery stores, pharmaceutical companies, and other medical settings. They assist pharmacists in maintaining the stock of medicines, preparing, distributing, and administering medication to patients.
  • Licensed Practical NurseLicensed practical nurses (LPNs) provide basic nursing care to patients under the supervision of doctors, physicians, and registered nurses. They measure vital signs, administer medications, assist patients in bathing and movement, communicate any change in patients’ health to doctors, etc.
  • Medical Records and Health Informatics TechnicianThese medical professionals arrange and handle health-related information and data in both paper files and electronic systems. They comply with ethical, regulatory, and legal standards for maintaining the security, accuracy, quality, and accessibility of patients’ and healthcare facilities’ information.
  • Dental AssistantDental assistants aid dentists in delivering quality oral care to patients. Their job duties include taking dental X-rays and impressions of patients’ teeth, instructing patients about oral care after dental surgery or procedure, educating patients about oral health, oral hygiene, and plaque control.
  • Medical Biller and CoderMedical billers and coders translate patients’ information into the right medical codes. Before writing codes, they thoroughly analyze the data and ensure its accuracy by interacting with the physicians. They also input the health and treatment information of patients in electronic records.
  • EKG/Cardiology TechnicianIf you are interested in assisting people in preventing cardiovascular diseases, you can become a cardiology technician. These professionals perform stress testing procedures, electrocardiography, etc. Hands-on training is required to work as an EKG/cardiology technician.

    Here we have mentioned some of the popular career options for the medical assistants. In addition to these, they can also work in other fields like podiatry, ophthalmology, public health, insurance companies, medical institutes, etc.

Scope of Practice for Medical Assistants

The scope of practice of these professionals depends on their clinical competency, education, and willingness of the employers to delegate clinical tasks. Some states do not provide precise regulatory guidance, while others may have their regulations. For instance,

  • In California, these medical workers are regulated by the Medical Board of California. The board allows them to perform technical support services, clerical, and administrative tasks if they meet some crucial requirements, such as training, supervision, records, and specific authorization. They may not render inpatient care services in licensed acute care hospitals.
  • The Arizona State Legislature allows MAs to perform specific tasks, such as scheduling patient appointments, verifying insurance, billing and coding, etc. without any supervision. However, they can perform medical procedures, such as administering injections and taking body fluid specimens, under the supervision of experienced healthcare professionals.

Tasks that Medical Assistants May Perform

Most of the states allow the medical assistants to perform the following duties under the direct supervision of a physician, doctor, licensed practical nurses, or registered nurses:

  • Measuring and recording vital signs
  • Educating and providing instructions to the patients
  • Removing sutures from minor cuts
  • Wound dressing
  • Disinfecting treatment sites
  • Preparing patients for examination
  • Administering medications

Tasks that Medical Assistants May Not Perform

Subject to the regulations and laws of your state, you may not be allowed to perform the following duties:

  • Operating laser equipment
  • Interpreting test results
  • Injecting medications into the vein
  • Performing telephone triage
  • Making medical care decisions
  • Starting or discontinuing IVs

For more information about the scope of practice for medical assistants in different states of the United States, you can visit https://www.aama-ntl.org/employers/state-scope-of-practice-laws.

Supervision Considerations

  • In most states, physicians and doctors are responsible for delegating tasks to medical assistants. In such a scenario, these doctors and physicians retain the legal liability and responsibility for the assigned tasks. They have to face actions that medical licensing boards take against malpractice liability if medical assistants fail to provide apt care.
  • The employers must clearly define the scope of practice of MAs in job description or policy.
  • Medical assistants can check the patient’s data; however, employers must check with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for their “meaningful use” requirements.

Job Environment: A Day in Medical Assistant’s Life

Medical assistants perform a wide array of duties, and each day brings new challenges for these professionals. Your day-to-day activities and work timings depend on your area of specialization and the healthcare setting you work with. This fast-paced career keeps you on your toes the entire day.

The Beginning of the Day

Medical offices generally open at 8:00 AM; however, they may open earlier if any appointment is scheduled before 8:00 AM. Medical assistants arrive at the facility 30 minutes before the patients arrive.

Clinical medical assistants commence their day by reviewing the daily schedule of patients, listening and answering to phone messages, completing the paperwork required for the day, organizing the charts, and preparing patient rooms.

Administrative medical assistants start their day by preparing charts for the clinical MAs, scheduling appointments, handling office email, and filing insurance forms of patients.

Arrival of Patients

When patients arrive, administrative MAs check their appointments, get required forms filled by them, and verify their information and health insurance. Clinical MAs greet them and take them to the examination room. They measure the vital signs of the patients and prepare them for any procedures if required.

Further, medical assistants help physicians and doctors in giving medications or injections to patients, performing medical procedures, drawing blood, performing lab tests, and managing emergencies.

Most of the time, the day of a medical assistant doesn’t go as planned. The reasons are; some patients do not walk-in on time for their scheduled appointments while others arrive without an appointment for emergency treatment. Sometimes, the physicians are called out for urgent care during emergencies, and in some cases, they take longer than the scheduled time for treating the patient with a severe medical condition.

Break Time

Medical assistants generally get three breaks in a day, a short break in the morning, a longe break in the noon, and another short break in the evening. Depending on how the day is going, you may skip small breaks to keep doing your work without interruptions.

Completion of the Day

The day at work for medical assistants doesn’t end until the daily scheduled patients are complete. At the end of the day, these professionals have lots of tasks in their hands, such as completing patient charts, answering to returning phone calls, managing prescription refills, etc. If patients arrive late after their scheduled time, you have to stay for longer. Some medical assistants prefer to keep up a little late to do preparations for the next day.

Thus, each day of a medical assistant begins with chaos and the noon remains very busy and hectic. However, the day ends with the satisfaction that they made a difference in the lives of the people by providing care to them when it was needed the most.

Is Medical Assisting a Tough Career?

Like other professions, the job of medical assisting comes with some pros and cons. On the one hand, this career allows you to enter the job in a relatively shorter time, lets you work in various healthcare settings, provides you opportunities to advance your career, increases your earning potential, and has many more monetary and non-monetary perks. On the other hand, it exposes you to a stressful work environment, health-related and legal risks, demands extended hours of work, and provides a restricted scope of working. In a nutshell, this career is both demanding and rewarding.

You can’t become a medical assistant only based on your career goals and aspirations. To pursue this career, you must be willing to serve humanity and bring a difference in people’s lives without worrying about the challenges. But if you can’t deal with a fast-paced and stressful work environment and don’t have a calm demeanor, you must not think about choosing this profession. Thus, before arriving at any decision, ensure whether you have the capabilities to manage the hardships of this job or not.

Career Advancement: What’s Next After Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants get several opportunities to advance their careers. They just need to obtain work experience, training in specialized areas, certifications, and complete higher education to climb up the ladder of their career. You can also pursue a career in other medical fields to get higher salary packages, enhance your skills, and increase employment security.

You can spread your wings in the fields of healthcare management, medical technology, nursing, and health sciences. You can assume senior, supervisory, or managerial positions in the health information sector. You can also become a clinical laboratory technologist, surgical technologist, and medical records health information technician. You can also work as a pediatric medical assistant, nurse practitioner, licensed practical or vocational nurse, registered nurse, medical assistant instructor, etc.