Even in high-growth industries like healthcare, there aren’t many careers that come with great pay that you can get into without piling up a mountain of student debt. Even more rare are career paths that give you access to opportunities to expand your skills over time so you can advance to even higher paying positions.
Medical assisting is a high-demand field that’s found itself front and center amid the skyrocketing demand for health services. And from independent medical practices to major hospital systems, employers don’t have much trouble filling all the new positions opening up each year. The fact that you can get into the field with all the training and credentials you need to start bringing home paychecks in less than two years is something that appeals to a lot of people.
In ranking jobs, U.S. News puts medical assisting at number two in the Best Jobs Without a 4-Year College Degree category, and gave it the sixth place slot for Best Healthcare Support Jobs. They even ranked it among the 100 Best Jobs across all categories, which says a lot about a profession that you can get into with just an associate’s degree or technical certificate.
And with the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics expecting a lightning-fast 23% job growth rate in the ten-year period leading up to 2028, it’s also one of the fastest growing career fields in healthcare. With more than 680,000 medial assistants working in America’s healthcare system in 2018, that works out to a net addition of nearly 150,000 new jobs by 2028 – an absolutely staggering growth rate that makes it clear there will continue to be well paying positions for skilled MAs well into the future.
Medical assistants in the United States are generally not licensed or certified at the state level, with the exception of those authorized to administer IV fluids, draw blood or perform X-rays. However, employers maintain strict requirements with regard to education, experience and national certification. This means that for just about everyone serious about getting into the field, education and hands-on training through a certificate or associate degree program is the first step.
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Complete a Medical Assistant Preparation Program
This is a field where job candidates are individually accountable for getting the education they need to do the job, and where employers are responsible for building out their staff with MAs capable of safely and skillfully performing the tasks expected of them. In a self-regulated profession like this where there isn’t a state licensing authority to set the standards, academic accreditation plays a very important role in ensuring all the necessary curriculum and hands-on training components are in place. That’s why so many medical assisting programs, whether at the certificate or associate degree level, are accredited by one of the two agencies responsible for setting curriculum guidelines for medical assistant training:
• Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
• Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
You’ll find these programs offered everywhere from vocational or technical schools and community colleges, to traditional colleges that offer them both online and on-campus. Medical assisting programs offered at the certificate or diploma level generally take as little as 10 months to complete, while an associate’s of science (AS) or applied associate’s (AAS) would take you about 2 years.
Although you will find non-degree training options labeled as either certificate or diploma programs, there is no appreciable difference between the two. It really makes sense to think of your options in terms of either the two-year associate’s degree that provides general education courses along with your medical assistant training, or the shorter certificate/diploma option that skips those general undergrad credits.
At the associate level, you’ll typically see medical assistant degrees structured as Associate of Applied Science programs, which are designed to provide career training geared specifically for the medical assistant job description. As a career training associate’s rather than a transfer degree, AAS programs do not generally give you the option to apply your credits toward a bachelor’s degree later on. The fact that credits are non-transferable is really the key difference between an AAS program and traditional AS.
Some traditional, fully-transferrable AS programs in medical assisting are also available, and are an ideal choice for students who have aspirations of earning more advanced degrees in everything from nursing to medical coding.
Hands-on training is an indispensable part of a comprehensive education, and all accredited medical assistant programs – whether a certificate/diploma, AS or AAS – will culminate in an externship or practicum that puts you in a real-world setting for an immersive training experience under close supervision.
Medical assistant programs train students to perform specific duties, including:
• Taking vital signs
• Assisting in minor surgical procedures
• Carrying out basic accounting/administrative procedures
• Charting and documenting
Typical courses found within a medical assistant training program include:
• Medical law and bioethics
• Medical terminology
• Diseases of the human body
• Medical coding and insurance
• Human anatomy and physiology
• Medical office management
Learn About State Requirements
Some states require additional training and certification before medical assistants can perform certain specific duties that are outside the typical scope of practice for MAs. Although medical assisting is widely categorized as an unlicensed profession, in these instances you’ll usually be able to find information on training requirements detailed in a state’s administrative code, along with specific language on practice requirements and the duties that MAs with this kind of expanded practice authority can perform. In states where certain expanded duties are allowed, it’s more common for there to be a state-level registry or certification requirement.
This state-level certification is often reciprocal with national certification, meaning once you hold a nationally-recognized credential like the RMA (Registered Medical Assistant) or CMA (Certified Medical Assistant), your state will then certify you. For example, New Jersey defers to national certification, requiring medical assistants who administer subcutaneous and intramuscular injections under the supervision of a physician to be graduates of an ABHES-accredited program and to be certified through the AAMA, NCCT, or AMT. MAs who aren’t authorized to give shots aren’t required to hold one of these certs.
Along with all required training and education, medical assistants are expected to become familiar with the practice and registration requirements specific to their state.
Consider National Certification
Although national certification is voluntary, a growing number of employers are realizing the value of hiring medical assistants who have achieved nationally-recognized credentials in the field. With eligibility requirements that include completing an accredited training program and passing a certification exam, these certifications signify a high level of knowledge and proficiency in the field.
Although the CMA (Certified Medical Assistant) designation through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) is one of the most widely accepted credentials in the profession, there are a number of other certification options medical assistants may choose to pursue.
The Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) credential available through American Medical Technologists (AMT) is another general practice certification very similar to the CMA. It’s so similar, in fact, that one of the qualification options for getting the RMA is to simply earn the CMA first.
The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) offers a the National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) as a general practice credential, and the National Certified Medical Office Assistant, which is more focused on front-office and administrative functions.
The National Healthcare Association offers a clinically-focused certification for general practice known as the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA).
There is no strong argument for choosing one of these credentials over another – all of them are strong representations of your commitment to the field and all of them involve a similar set of training qualifications and passing scores on a competency exam.
Aside from these well-recognized general certifications, a few other options are available for MAs who work for different types of medical specialists:
- Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA): The Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology
- Podiatric Medical Assistant, Certified (PMAC): American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants
- Certified Clinical Podiatric Medical Assistant (CCPMA): The American College of Podiatric Medical Assistants
Once you’re certified and employed, you might choose to join a professional association, either at the national level, or you could go with a state-based organization or state chapter of one of the big national ones. All of the major certifying agencies double as professional membership associations that provide medical assistants with networking opportunities, as well as continuing education opportunities through professional programs, seminars, and meetings.