If you’re thinking about pursuing a medical profession, you may be considering becoming a medical assistant or medical lab technician.
A medical assistant is someone who usually works in a doctor’s office or clinic. They have both administrative and patient care responsibilities and spend their days interacting with patients and physicians.
A medical lab technician is someone who works in a medical laboratory helping to conduct tests on body tissues like blood, urine, sputum, and others. They work with special lab equipment and ensure that all machinery is working properly.
This guide goes over responsibilities, average salaries, education requirements, and key differences and similarities between medical assistants and medical lab technicians to help you decide which is the best career choice for you.
Medical Assisting vs Medical Lab Technician Overview
Though both are medical professions, there are key similarities and differences between medical assistants and medical lab technicians.
Medical assistants work directly with patients, measuring vital signs, scheduling appointments, and getting patients situated in exam rooms. Medical assistants only require a high school diploma or GED in most states, though many decide to get certified.
Medical lab technicians still play an important role in patients’ healthcare, but their work is done away from the patients, in their own special laboratories. Laboratory technicians must have at least an associate degree in clinical laboratory science or something similar.
Medical Assistant Overview
Medical assistants have a mix of clinical and administrative duties, ranging from drawing blood to scheduling appointments. Some of their responsibilities include:
- Measuring vital signs
- Collecting blood and urine samples
- Applying dressings
- Removing stitches
- Scheduling appointments
- Cleaning rooms
- Handling billing
- Contacting Insurance companies
- Ordering supplies
To become a medical assistant, you must have your high school diploma or GED. After that, you may choose to enroll in a training program and pursue your medical assistant certification. After you complete your course, you can take a certification exam and start looking for jobs. Most employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants.
Stepful, for example, has a 4-month online medical assistant training program that leads to a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant certification.
Medical assistants may work in doctors offices, outpatient clinics, urgent care centers, hospitals, long-term care centers, and almost any other healthcare facility.
Most medical assistants work weekdays during normal business hours, although some have to work evening and weekend shifts. You can learn more about the typical work schedule of a medical assistant here.
Medical assistants work fast-paced jobs and spend most of their day on their feet, helping patients get the care and treatment they need and assisting physicians with their responsibilities.
Medical Lab Technician Overview
Medical lab technicians perform tests on blood and other body tissues to help diagnose and treat patients. Some of their responsibilities include:
- Analyzing blood, urine, sputum, stool, and body tissue samples to look for abnormalities
- Keeping blood safe for transfusion by testing the blood type and antibodies
- Using microscopes to count the number of cells or types of bacteria in a sample
- Entering results and data into the electronic health record
- Notifying the physician of any abnormal results
Medical lab technicians may work in laboratories in hospitals, clinics, independent labs, and research centers. Lab technicians are needed 24/7, so they often have to work evening, nighttime, and weekend hours.
Lab technicians spend most of their shifts in one location, but they stay very busy. When they are not analyzing samples, they spend their time cleaning equipment and making sure everything is functioning properly.
Key Similarities Between Medical Assistants & Medical Lab Technicians
Medical assistants and medical lab technicians are both important members of the healthcare team. The two jobs share some similarities, including:
- Exposure to body fluids. Both medical assistants who collect samples and lab techs who test the samples have high exposure to body fluids and tissues. They must pay special attention to safety protocols to decrease their risk of becoming infected by a contagious disease.
- Follow strict HIPPA guidelines. Medical assistants and medical technicians have access to a lot of private health information. Both types of jobs require strict adherence to patient privacy laws.
- Meaningful careers. Both medical assistants and medical lab technicians perform important work that can improve the health and well-being of patients. Both careers offer opportunities to make a difference in the community.
Key Differences Between Medical Assistants & Medical Lab Technicians
Although they are both medical careers, there are many differences between medical assistants and medical laboratory technicians, including:
- Required education. Medical assistants only require a high school diploma or GED, while medical laboratory technicians must have at least an associate's degree.
- Salary. Medical laboratory technicians earn about $20,000 per year more than medical assistants.
- Patient interaction. Medical assistants spend most of their time working directly with patients. They talk to their patients all day and may even help them with things like getting dressed. Medical laboratory technicians rarely see patients face to face and spend most of their time analyzing tissues and working with equipment.
Salary Differences for Medical Assistants & Medical Lab Technicians
There are some significant differences between the salary and job outlook of medical assistants and medical laboratory technicians.
Job Outlook for Medical Assistants & Medical Lab Technicians
It is always important to consider job outlook when deciding between careers. Most healthcare careers have a good job outlook, but some are expected to grow faster than others.
While medical lab technicians earn more money, their expected job growth is only 7% through 2031. Medical assisting has a much higher expected job growth rate of 16% through 2031.
Necessary Skills for Medical Assistants & Medical Lab Technicians
Most healthcare-related jobs require specific knowledge and skills to be successful.
Some skills required to be a medical assistant include:
- Great time management
- Good verbal communication
Skills required to be a medical lab technician include:
- Eye for detail
- Clear written communication
- Steady hands
- Basic pathology understanding
- Strong math skills
How to Choose Between Medical Assisting & Medical Lab Technicians
When making a career choice between medical assisting and becoming a medical lab technician, there are a few things you should consider:
- Education requirements. If you want to get started working right away, you should start with medical assisting. Some people choose to work as medical assistants while they spend two years earning their associate degree for working as a lab technician.
- Salary. While medical lab technicians spend more time in school, they earn a much higher salary than medical assistants do.
- Working hours. If you choose to become a medical lab technician, you may have to work more holiday, night, and weekend hours.
- Personality. If you love meeting new people and talking to strangers, you will probably enjoy working as a medical assistant. If you prefer to work alone and keep to yourself, becoming a laboratory technician might be a better choice.
Education & Certification Requirements for Medical Assistants & Medical Lab Technicians
Medical assistants must have at least a high school diploma or GED before they can start working. Most medical assistants choose to become certified, even though it’s possible to work as one without experience. Certification can be completed in as little as four months through a program like Stepful’s Online Training Program.
Medical laboratory technicians must earn at least an associate's degree. Many laboratories require their technicians to be certified in addition to earning their degrees. American Medical Technologists offer a certification exam for potential lab technicians.
Comparing a Day in the Life for Medical Assistants & Medical Lab Technicians
Medical assistants and medical lab technicians can work together to improve the health of their patients, but their daily routines are quite different.
Medical assistants typically start their day getting their office or clinic ready for patients to arrive. They might check the schedule and send appointment reminders to keep things running smoothly all day.
They will spend the rest of their workday escorting patients to rooms, measuring vital signs, answering phone calls, and assisting with bedside procedures. They are typically home in time for dinner.
Medical laboratory technicians might start their shifts in the morning, afternoon, or middle of the night. They will start their work day by checking their equipment to make sure everything is functioning, and then get to work analyzing samples.
Lab technicians spend their work day looking through microscopes or using different chemicals to check for reactions.
They must pay close attention to each sample and avoid spilling or contaminating any of the fluids they work with. Obtaining accurate lab results is essential to the proper treatment of patients.
Job Growth & Progression for Medical Assistants & Medical Lab Technicians
Many medical assistants get experience working with patients and then choose to return to school to earn a more advanced healthcare degree. Medical assisting experience is a great starting point for a healthcare career.
Medical assistants often return to school to become nurses or physician assistants. Those who choose not to return to school can still advance as medical assistants to become office managers or medical assisting instructors.
- Medical Assistant Career Path & Advancement Opportunities
- How to Go From Medical Assistant to Registered Nurse
- How to Go From Medical Assistant to Physician Assistant
Medical laboratory technicians may continue school to earn a bachelor's degree and become medical laboratory scientists, who often lead groups of medical lab technicians.