What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants complete administrative and clinical tasks in the offices of physicians, podiatrists, chiropractors, and other health practitioners. Their duties vary with the location, specialty, and size of the practice. Most medical assistants work in physicians' offices and other healthcare facilities. Most work full time.

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What does a Medical Assistant do?

Medical assistants typically do the following:

  • Take patient history and measure vital signs
  • Help the physician with patient examinations
  • Give patient injections as directed by the physician
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Prepare blood for laboratory tests.

Electronic health records (EHRs) are changing medical assistants' jobs. More and more physicians are adopting EHRs, moving all their patient information online. Assistants need to learn the EHR software that their office uses.

Medical assistants take and record patients’ personal information. They must be able to keep that information confidential and discuss it only with other medical personnel who are involved in treating the patient.

Medical assistants should not be confused with physician assistants, who examine, diagnose, and treat patients under a physician's supervision.

What does it take to be a Medical Assistant?

High school students interested in a career as a medical assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy. Medical assistants typically have a high school diploma or equivalent. There are no formal educational requirements for becoming a medical assistant in most jurisdictions. However, some medical assistants graduate from formal education programs, and employers may prefer such training.

Programs are available from community colleges, vocational schools, technical schools, or universities and take about one year to complete. These programs usually lead to a certificate or diploma. Some community and junior colleges offer 2-year programs that lead to an associate’s degree. All programs have classroom and laboratory portions that include lessons in anatomy and medical terminology.

Some jurisdictions require assistants to graduate from an accredited program or pass an exam or both to do advanced tasks, such as taking x rays and giving injections. Medical assistants are not required to be certified. However, employers prefer to hire certified assistants.

Several organizations offer certification. Some require the assistant to pass an exam, and others require graduation from an accredited program. In most cases, an applicant must be at least 18 years old before applying for certification.

Through on-the-job training, a physician or another medical assistant in the office may teach the new assistant medical terminology, the names of the instruments, how to do daily tasks, how to interact with patients, and other tasks that help keep the office running smoothly. An assistant also learns how to code both paper and electronic health records and how to record patient information. It can take several months for an assistant to complete training, depending on the facility.

Medical assistants are not required to be certified. However, employers prefer to hire certified assistants.

What is the workplace of a Medical Assistant like?

Most medical assistants work in physicians’ offices and other healthcare facilities. In 2010, more than half of all medical assistants worked in physicians’ offices. Most medical assistants work full time. Some work evenings or weekends to cover shifts in medical facilities that are always open.

How much does a Medical Assistant earn?

The median annual wage of medical assistants was $28,860 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $20,810, and the top 10% earned more than $40,190.

Learn more about being a Medical Assistant