If you have ever thought about pursuing a career in the medical field, you may be considering becoming either a medical assistant or a pharmacy technician. While they are both good jobs in healthcare, there are some important differences between them.
Medical assistants typically work in a doctor's office helping the physician by measuring patient vital signs, scheduling appointments, and assisting with bedside procedures.
Pharmacy technicians typically work in a pharmacy and mix medication, fill automated dispensing systems, and help patients get their prescriptions filled.
This guide goes over key differences between the two to help you decide which is better for you.
Medical Assistant vs Pharmacy Technician Overview
Though both are medical professions, there are key differences and similarities between the two.
Medical assistants and pharmacy technicians each require a similar length of training and get to work in the healthcare field, however, pharmacy technicians deal primarily with medications and customer service, while medical assistants’ primary focus is on patient care and administrative duties.
Before we dive in, we wanted to let you know that we offer both an Online Medical Assistant Program and an Online Pharmacy Technician Program here at Stepful. Both cost just $1,999 and only take 4 months to complete.
Medical Assistant Overview
Medical assistants have many different responsibilities ranging from administrative duties to clinical patient care. Their responsibilities include:
- Measuring vital signs
- Having good customer service skills
- Thinking critically
- Handling billing
- Answering phone calls
- Scheduling appointments
- Administering medications
- Giving injections
- Drawing blood
- Collecting urine samples
- Removing sutures
- Preparing examination rooms
- Relaying patient and physician questions
- Keeping supplies stocked and organized
Many medical assistants earn a certification by completing a training program and passing a certification exam.
Medical assistant programs typically last between 4 months and 2 years, depending on whether or not they end in a degree. Costs typically range from $1,500 to $20,000, also depending on the type of program you choose.
For example, our Online Medical Assistant Program here at Stepful costs $1,999 (even cheaper if you qualify for a scholarship) and takes 4 months to complete.
Most medical assistants work in an office or clinic during regular business hours, with a few medical assisting jobs requiring night, weekend, and holiday coverage.
Medical assistants may start the day by preparing rooms for patient visits and sending appointment confirmations, and spend the rest of the day working directly with patients.
Medical assistants often work in fast-paced environments and spend most of the day on their feet.
Pharmacy Technician Overview
Pharmacy technicians' responsibilities include dealing with prescription medications, but their specific responsibilities vary based on their work location. Responsibilities of a pharmacy technician can include:
- Helping fill prescriptions
- Handling billing and payment for medication
- Organizing medications
- Tracking controlled substance prescriptions
- Compounding medications
- Filling mail-order prescriptions
- Restocking hospital medication dispensers
- Delivering medications to healthcare facilities
- Mixing sterile medications
In most states, pharmacy technicians have to complete a training course, pass a certification exam, and apply for licensure with their specific states’ Board of Pharmacy.
Pharmacy technician programs take as little as 4 months for an online or certificate program or as long as 2 years for an associate degree program. Becoming licensed as a pharmacy technician typically requires a background check and a drug screening exam.
The cost of pharmacy technician programs ranges from $400 to $40,000 depending on the type of program you choose.
For example, our Online Pharmacy Technician Program here at Stepful costs $1,999 (even cheaper if you qualify for a scholarship) and takes 4 months to complete.
Pharmacy technicians commonly work in retail or private pharmacies like Walgreens or CVS. In those locations, pharmacy technicians spend their days organizing medications, taking inventory, helping customers, and assisting the pharmacist.
Pharmacy technicians who work in hospitals or other locations may spend their days mixing or compounding different medications, double-checking dosage calculations, or filling automated medication dispensers.
Key Similarities Between Medical Assistants & Pharmacy Technicians
While medical assistants and pharmacy technicians have different roles and responsibilities, there are some ways in which they are similar, such as:
- Basic medical knowledge. Both medical assistants and pharmacy technicians need a basic understanding of illness, infection control, and HIPAA. They both have to work hard to ensure that they keep their patient's physical health and health information safe.
- Infection control requirements. Whether it is assisting with a bedside procedure for a medical assistant or compounding medications for a pharmacy technician, infection control has to remain a priority for both medical assistants and pharmacy technicians.
- Meaningful careers. Both careers give the employee to make a difference in the lives of their customers and patients. Working in healthcare means helping others obtain their highest level of health and wellness.
- Salary. Pharmacy technicians and medical assistants earn similar salaries, around $38,000 per year or $18 per hour.
- Working hours. Both types of employees typically work Monday through Friday during normal business hours. Both careers also offer some opportunities for night and weekend shifts.
- Training program length. Online pharmacy technician and medical assistant training programs can typically be completed in about 4 months. Both can also earn an associate degree in their chosen field in 2 years.
Key Differences Between Medical Assistants & Pharmacy Technicians
While medical assistants and pharmacy technicians both work in healthcare, their day-to-day responsibilities are quite different. Here are some key differences:
- Knowledge of medications. Pharmacy technicians must have a more thorough understanding of medications than medical assistants. While medical assistants do occasionally give medications, they do not deal with them as frequently as pharmacy techs.
- Exposure to illness. While pharmacy technicians do occasionally interact with sick patients, medical assistants have a much higher rate of exposure to infectious diseases, blood, and body fluids.
- Projected job growth. While there is good job security for both careers, medical assistants have a projected job growth of 14% through 2033 while pharmacy technicians only have a projected growth of 6%.
- Patient interaction. Medical assistants split their time between interacting with patients and doing administrative tasks. Pharmacy technicians have several job options that require little-to-no direct patient interaction.
Medical Assistant & Pharmacy Technician Salary & Job Growth Comparison
Pharmacy technicians and medical assistants typically earn similar salaries across the United States. Medical assistants earn a median salary of $38,270 per year or $18.40 per hour, and pharmacy technicians earn a median salary of $37,790 per year or $18.17 per hour.
Of course, these salaries vary based on location, experience, and certification.
Job opportunities for medical assistants are expected to increase by 14% through 2032, which is more than twice the growth expected for pharmacy technicians. Job opportunities for pharmacy technicians are still good, but only a 6% growth is expected through 2023.
Education & Certification Requirements for Medical Assistants & Pharmacy Technicians
Medical assistants and pharmacy technicians can both earn certifications by completing a training course and passing a certification exam.
Both types of training can be completed through an online program lasting between 4 months to 1 year. In addition, medical assistants and pharmacy technicians can both earn associate degrees in their respective fields.
While both can earn certifications, laws about pharmacy technician certifications are typically more strict than for medical assistants.
Requirements for medical assistant certifications and licenses vary by state. Some have no requirements while others require both. You can learn more about the different medical assistant certification options here.
Comparing a Day in the Life for Medical Assistants & Pharmacy Technicians
Pharmacy technicians spend their days organizing and taking inventory of medications, restocking shelves, and helping patients get their prescriptions filled. Compounding pharmacy technicians may spend more time mixing medications and may come in contact with potentially hazardous medications like chemotherapy.
Medical assistants may start their day preparing the office for patients to arrive. They may specialize in administrative medical assisting and spend their day answering phones, managing scheduling, dealing with insurance companies, and keeping things organized. They also may specialize in clinical medical assisting where they will spend their day taking patient vital signs, collecting blood, stool, and urine samples, and assisting with some procedures.
Both types of work require the ability to stand on your feet for long hours, stay organized, and pay close attention to detail. Both jobs are typically done during normal business hours and while they can be fast-paced, they offer a good work-life balance.
FAQs About a Medical Assistant vs. Pharmacy Technician Career
Do medical assistants or pharmacy technicians make more?
Medical assistants and pharmacy technicians typically earn about the same salary. However, pay for each job depends on experience level, if you’re certified, and job location.
How long does it take to become a medical assistant vs pharmacy technician?
Formal training for both pharmacy technicians and medical assistants can be completed in about 4 months. However, you are more likely to be able to find a job as a medical assistant without earning a certification than a pharmacy technician. Pharmacy technicians usually have to have a certification or license, while medical assistants can often work without one.
Is it harder to become a medical assistant or pharmacy technician?
Because licensing, registration, and certification requirements are more strict for pharmacy technicians, it is typically harder to become a pharmacy technician than it is to become a medical assistant. However, if you choose to be certified, both career paths are similar in their level of difficulty.
Is a medical assistant or pharmacy technician higher up?
Neither a medical assistant nor a pharmacy technician is “higher up” than the other. They both have to work under the supervision of either a pharmacist or medical doctor and have a similar scope of practice. Neither can diagnose illness or prescribe medication.