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Medical assistants are key support staff for physicians and other health-care professionals. They may be certified but are not required to be licensed, and can be trained on the job. Many MAs, however, complete formal education programs. They may be trained only in administrative or front-office tasks, in clinical or back-office tasks, or in both. Each state regulates the scope of practice, and an MA’s duties may vary according to the state or specialty. Some MAs become office managers or educators. In all cases, the MA works under the direction and supervision of a physician or registered nurse, and cannot practice independently.
Administrative Medical Assistants
Medical assistants who receive formal training may attend a college or technical/vocational school. Most programs offer a certificate, although some offer an associate degree. An MA who trained only in administrative duties performs tasks such as scheduling appointments or answering the phone. She may maintain patients’ medical records, help them with insurance paperwork or handle billing tasks, including insurance coding. Administrative MAs also arrange for hospital admissions or patient referrals, and in a small office may perform secretarial tasks such as handling the physician’s correspondence.
Clinical Medical Assistants
Clinical MAs spend most of their time with patients, performing support tasks for the physician. For example, a clinical MA might sterilize instruments, clean exam rooms and assist with medical procedures. She takes a patient’s vital signs such as blood pressure and pulse, administers medications or collects specimens for laboratory tests. Many MAs are trained in phlebotomy -- the practice of drawing blood for laboratory tests. The MA may perform typical office-based laboratory tests. Clinical MAs may also authorize refills of a prescription under the supervision of a physician. In some states, MAs can work in a hospital, where they perform basic patient care.
Specialties and Other Careers
MAs who work in specialty offices perform additional tasks related to that specialty. Ophthalmic and optometric medical assistants teach patients how to insert, remove or care for their contact lenses. In some states, MAs can assist the ophthalmologist in surgery. Podiatric MAs take X-rays, apply casts or help the podiatrist in office surgical procedures. An MA in a cardiologist’s office typically performs electrocardiograms to help assess the heart’s electrical activity. MAs may become educators, and typically work in community colleges or technical vocational schools. An MA might also become an office manager, responsible for hiring, training, supervising and evaluating office staff.
Although they are not licensed, MAs can become certified by passing a national examination. Administrative and clinical MAs take the same certification. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that certified MAs may have better employment prospects. In addition to the general certification exam offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants, specialty certification is available. The CertiTrek Group is another certifying body not linked to the AAMA. It offers certification in 13 different specialties, such as cardiology, dermatology, family medicine, geriatrics, oncology, orthopedic surgery and women’s health.
Job Prospects and Salary
Job prospects for MAs should be excellent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS projects job growth of 29 percent for MAs from 2012 to 2022, more than twice the average for all occupations. The average annual salary for MAs was $31,220 in 2014, with a salary range from $21,540 to $42,760. The AAMA reported certified medical assistants who held an AAMA credential earned more in 2014 than those who were not certified or who were credentialed by another organization, with an average annual salary of $29,600 compared to $27,261.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.