What is a Medical Assistant?

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There were 560,800 medical assistants in the United States in 2012. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, this number is projected to increase to 723,700 by 2022, representing a 29 percent increase. The sharp increase in medical assistants expected in the coming years reflects a similar trend throughout most allied healthcare professions, which continue to experience exponential growth thanks to an expanding healthcare industry.

A medical assistant, according to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), is a medical professional who is responsible for working alongside physicians in outpatient and ambulatory care facilities, such as medical offices and clinics. The AAMA attributes the growth of medical assistants in the U.S. to a number of factors, including:

  • A predicted increase in the number of outpatient care facilities and physicians’ offices
  • Technological advances in the medical field
  • A growing number of elderly Americans (i.e., the Baby Boomer generation)

Regardless of whether they are performing clinical or administrative tasks, medical assistants help keep physicians’ offices running smoothly. Further, whether working for a general physician, chiropractor, optometrist, or dermatologist, the job of a medical assistant involves working under the direct guidance, supervision, and instruction of a physician.

In smaller practices, medical assistants often handle both administrative (clerical) and clinical duties of the office. In larger practices, it is typical for medical assistants to specialize their work in a particular area. In larger practices, it is also typical for multiple medical assistants to be under the direct supervision of a department or practice administrator.

What Do Medical Assistants Do?

Medical assistants are healthcare professionals who are cross-trained to perform administrative and clinical duties. The duties and responsibilities of medical assistants often differ somewhat based on the size, location, and practice specialty, as well as according to state laws.

Administrative duties of medical assistants may include:

  • Answering telephones
  • Arranging for hospital admissions
  • Arranging for lab services
  • Entering and updating patient records
  • Filling out insurance forms, billing
  • Greeting patients
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Using computer software programs

The clinical duties of medical assistants may include:

  • Assisting physicians during a patient examination
  • Authorizing prescription refills
  • Changing patient dressings, removing sutures
  • Drawing blood and collecting lab specimens
  • Helping patients understand medical treatments and therapies
  • Interviewing patients, asking questions about their medical histories
  • Preparing medical therapies and administering them under the direction of a physician
  • Preparing patients for examinations
  • Providing direction, support, and counseling regarding patient administration of medical therapies and medications
  • Serving as a patient liaison
  • Taking patient vitals

Where do Medical Assistants Work?

Depending on the practice specialty, the work of medical assistants may be distinctly different. For example, in an optometrist’s office, a medical assistant may administer diagnostic tests and measure and record vision using a number of testing methods, while in a gynecologist’s office, a medical assistant may help prepare patients for gynecological procedures, prepare and send lab specimens, and administer pregnancy tests.

Medical assistants may work part-time, full-time, evenings, or even weekends, depending on the operational hours of the practice or ambulatory care center. Regardless of their job duties and responsibilities, medical assistants work closely with patients and are often called upon to handle several responsibilities at once.

The AAMA reported that as of 2012, about 60 percent of all medical assistants worked in physician’s offices, while 13 percent worked in general medical and surgical hospitals, including both private and public facilities. Another 10 percent worked in offices of specialty health practitioners, such as podiatrists or chiropractors. The remaining worked in other settings, such as:

  • Ambulatory healthcare services
  • Employment services
  • Medical and diagnostic laboratories
  • Nursing care facilities
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Private and public educational services
  • State and local government agencies

Education, Training, and Advancement

The vast majority of medical assistants receive formal training from recognized medical assisting programs, which may be offered in a variety of settings, including:

  • Vocational-technical high schools
  • Postsecondary vocational schools
  • Junior colleges
  • Colleges and universities

There are two agencies that accredit medical assistant programs in the U.S.: the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

As of 2010, there were 617 programs accredited by CAAHEP and 358 programs accredited by ABHES. The Committee on Accreditation for Ophthalmic Medical Personnel accredited an additional 19 programs.

It is common for medical assisting programs to result in a diploma, a degree, or an associate degree.

Although medical assisting educational programs may be structured differently depending on the institution in which they are offered, coursework is decidedly similar, as it covers the following subject matter:

  • Accounting
  • Anatomy
  • Clinical and diagnostic procedures
  • Ethics
  • First aid
  • Insurance processing
  • Laboratory techniques
  • Medical administration
  • Medical law
  • Medical terminology
  • Patient relations
  • Pharmaceutical principles
  • Physiology
  • Record keeping
  • Typing transcription

Externships for medical assistants are an important culmination to any educational program, as they provide students with hands-on practical experience in a physician’s office, hospital, or other healthcare facility.

Although there is generally no state licensing for medical assistants in the U.S., a number of states do require specific testing or courses for working with certain high-tech equipment and machinery, such as x-ray machines.

Further, due to the lack of state-mandated requirements, national certification has become important for many employers of medical assistants, as it signifies that they have met specific standards of competence.

The most widely recognized professional certifications for medical assistants in the U.S. are:

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