What is a Medical Assistant & What Do They Do?

If you’ve been to a healthcare facility, you may have run into or heard of someone called a medical assistant (MA). They may have even answered your phone call the last time you called your physician’s office.  

A medical assistant is a member of the healthcare team that performs both clinical and administrative duties, such taking patients' vital signs, recording patient information, scheduling appointments, and handling billing and insurance.

This guide goes over what a medical assistant is, what they do, and where they work. Plus, learn the average salary for medical assistants and how to become one. 

What is a Medical Assistant?

Put simply, a medical assistant is a healthcare worker that assists other staff, such as physicians, with administrative and clinical tasks. Medical assistants work in a variety of settings such as private clinics, hospitals, and outpatient centers. 

Medical assistant is an accessible career path and is usually considered an entry-level position. However, medical assistants play an essential role in helping everything in a healthcare facility run smoothly, so that patients can receive the best care possible.

Medical assistants—sometimes referred to as medical assistant technicians—also enjoy a good amount of career flexibility. They can specialize in fields that will allow them to perform more specialized tasks. For example, they can work in a chiropractic office, ophthalmology practice, or in the obstetrics department at a hospital.

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Medical assistants perform tasks that are grouped into two categories: clinical and administrative. They will usually be involved in both during a typical workday, though in some cases, they may focus their efforts on one or the other. 

Clinical Duties of a Medical Assistant

Clinical duties of medical assistants involve assisting physicians in some aspect of patient care. These include:

  • Taking patient vitals (such as blood pressure, weight, heart rate
  • Assisting physicians with certain medical procedures
  • Preparing patients for medical procedures
  • Collecting specimens for laboratory analysis such as drawing blood
  • Performing basic clinical tests
  • Recording patient information into an electronic health record

Administrative Duties of a Medical Assistant

Administrative duties involve assisting other staff in making sure the healthcare facility’s operations run smoothly. Some MAs, called medical administrative assistants, specialize in just this. Responsibilities include:

  • Answering phone calls
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Assisting with medical billing and insurance
  • Calling patients to remind them about appointments
  • Maintaining patient records
  • Greeting and directing patients in the waiting room

>> Read More: Types of Medical Assistants or Medical Assistant vs. Medical Administrative Assistant

Where Do Medical Assistants Work?

Medical assistants typically work in outpatient settings, such as hospitals or private physician practices. They may also work in other settings such as chiropractic offices or ophthalmology practices.

Because hospitals are larger facilities with more resources, they can schedule more patients. As a result, medical assistants that work in a hospital will usually have a busier schedule. To do their job, they may spend a lot of time on their feet while walking around the hospital.

In comparison, physician private practices are smaller in scale. Thus, the typical workload is lighter and the pace is slower than what you would find in a hospital. In a private practice, medical assistants will likely have more flexibility with their work schedules.

There are even travel medical assistants that do short contracts (typically a few months) all over the United States.

If you are interested in becoming a medical assistant, it can be helpful to imagine what a typical workday would be like. Medical assistants usually work full-time schedules. During a shift, they will perform a variety of clinical and administrative tasks. 

For example, a medical assistant working in a hospital may make a phone call to schedule a patient’s appointment. Then, they might walk a patient to the exam room. After that, they may take the patient's vitals and go over their electronic health record. 

>> Read More: Typical Medical Assistant Work Schedule & Hours

Skills Required to Be a Medical Assistant

In order to perform their jobs effectively, medical assistants need to be proficient in a variety of skills. Here are some of the key skills required to become a medical assistant. 

  • Analytical skills: When working with patients, medical assistants need to be able to think critically and analyze data. For example, taking and reviewing a patient’s medical history will require the medical assistant to piece together various information and data to understand what is going on. 
  • Quick learner: Each workplace is different and needs help with different tasks. In addition, many medical assistants are trained on-the-job. They will need to be able to quickly learn their workplace’s policies, procedures, and routines. 
  • Medical terminology: Working closely with physicians and other staff requires speaking and understanding medical terminology. Medical assistants should be very comfortable with all the vocabulary and abbreviations needed to accurately record patient information into the electronic health record. 
  • Communication: Effective communication is an essential part of providing quality care. Medical assistants need to be able to skillfully communicate test results and instructions. In addition, they need to know how to make the patient feel welcome and comfortable in the clinic. Other closely related skills include empathy, cultural awareness, and customer service. Medical assistants should also know common terminology used in the workplace.
  • Computer skills: Working with electronic health records requires medical assistants to be able to navigate through the software. They will also need to be able to type quickly and efficiently in order to accurately record patient information.

>> See More: Skills Required to be a Medical Assistant

Medical Assistant Salaries & Job Outlook

The 2021 median annual salary for medical assistants was $37,190, which comes out to $17.88 per hour. 

To put this into more context, the top 10% of medical assistants earned an annual salary of $48,170 or more in 2021. In contrast, the bottom 10% of medical assistants earned an annual salary of $29,070 or less. 

It is important to note that median salaries varied slightly depending on where medical assistants worked. For example, medical assistants that worked in outpatient clinics tended to earn the most, with a median salary of $38,270

In comparison, medical assistants that worked in chiropractic offices tended to earn less, with a median salary of $30,100.

The job outlook for medical assistants is great, with employment over the next decade expected to grow by 16%. This means that medical assistant is considered to be growing faster than average, compared to other careers. In other words, there should be plenty of medical assistant positions available in the near future. 

Salary vary based on where you live, your experience, who you work for, and what medical assistant specialty you are, if any. Medical assistant specialty salaries vary considerably. Some, such as cardiology medical assistants, podiatry medical assistants, and dermatology medical assistants earn more than others, such as pediatric medical assistants.

How to Become a Medical Assistant

Compared with other healthcare careers, the path to becoming a medical assistant is significantly shorter. In many states, medical assistants do not need to be certified to work. However, employers will generally lean towards hiring applicants who are certified. 

The MA certification process consists of two steps. The first step to becoming a certified medical assistant is finishing an accredited postsecondary program at a vocational school, community college, or online program. The second step is passing an exam that assesses your knowledge as a medical assistant.

If you decide that a medical assistant career is right for you, here are some general steps to becoming one:

  1. Obtain your high school diploma or GED. This is considered the minimum educational requirement needed to become a medical assistant. It can also be a great idea to complete courses or electives in anatomy, physiology, and biology. This will provide some foundational knowledge that can be helpful when working as a medical assistant.
  2. Get the necessary training and education. It is common to first complete an approved medical assistant education program before working as a medical assistant. Medical assistant school and training programs vary in length but will typically take around four months to two years to complete. There are, sometimes, MA jobs available for people with no experience or online medical assistant programs that only take 6 weeks.
  3. Learn on-the-job. For those who have not completed a medical assistant program, it is also possible to be trained on-the-job. The medical assistant will be shown by other staff members how to perform all the tasks required of them. 

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