How to Become a Medical Assistant

Choosing a Medical Assistant Program 

medical assistant holding patient chartNow that you have decided to enter the rewarding field of healthcare and enroll in a medical assistant program, it’s time to choose a school that will provide the proper training.  But just how do you go about evaluating and comparing schools so that you ultimately enroll in the right one?  Many future students start by checking out the ones that are closest to their homes and then gravitate toward those that have the lowest tuition.  While cost and location are very important  such things as accreditation, the type of credentials offered, and whether or not internships are part of their program.  You may want to take a look at some online medical assistant classes as an option as well (more on that later).  The main point is that before you select a college you must complete your due diligence and compare all relevant aspects of the schools you are evaluating.  And to help you with that process, we have provided a few questions that you should ask all of the schools on your “maybe” list.  But before we start that review, let’s talk a little bit about the role of a medical assistant and the type of credentials and training that are available.

The Role of a Medical Assistant 

medical assistant taking vital signs of patientThe role of a medical assistant can be diverse as well as challenging.  Basically their job is to make sure that the hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities where they work run efficiently.  Depending on the size or type of facility, they may be more of a clinical assistant, an administrative assistant, or in smaller facilities responsible for both.  They are tasked with providing direct support to the physicians, nurses and other health professionals but may also be found working at the front desk or in an office.  Some of the possible duties of a medical assistant include:

    • Filling out insurance forms and filing claims
    • Scheduling and confirming appointments
    • Weighing and taking patients vital signs
    • Collecting blood and other fluid and tissue samples
    • Preparing instruments and rooms for physicians
    • Providing basic support during examinations and procedures

Although medical assistants may perform almost any task they are qualified to under state law, some choose to specialize in a specific area and obtain certification.  Two of the options available are for the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) and the Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) offered by the National Healthcareer Association (NHA).

Medical Assistant Training and Certification

CMA greeting patientUnlike many other healthcare professionals, medical assistants are not required to become certified, licensed, or to earn a college degree.  However, many employers prefer to hire graduates of an accredited medical assistant training program (more on accreditation later) that are certified.  There are basically two options available for a formal education.  The first and shortest route to becoming a medical assistant is to earn a certificate or diploma.  These programs generally take about a year to complete, some as little as 6 to 9 months.  They are designed to teach the basics of medical assisting and prepare graduates for entry level positions.  The second option is to earn an Associate Degree, which are typically 2 year programs offered at junior and community colleges as well as vocational and technical schools.  They are more comprehensive in nature than the certificate or diploma programs, and include general education courses in addition to the medical assistant training.  They often have a clinical component requiring an internship with a local healthcare facility.   Associate Degrees are often a pre-requisite for and credits can be transferred to a 4 year Bachelor’s Degree in Medical Assistant Studies or a related field.

As previously mentioned, certification is not a legal requirement, but is a good idea for those who want to advance their careers.  Not only will it help in obtaining a position after graduation, but it may also help with initial salary negotiations as well.  Some potential employers simply will not hire a medical assistant that has not received accredited formal training or certification.  The most popular and perhaps the most respected certification is the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).  In order to sit for the CMA exam, a candidate must have graduated or will graduate within 30 days from an accredited medical assistant program.  Other certifications are available as well, such as the CCMA and the CMAA we discussed earlier offered by the NHA.

Medical Assistant Online Schools

student attending medical assistant program onlineThere are many accredited medical assistant programs available online as well.  They are a good choice for those who may not have time to attend classes on campus but could fit them in if attended at home.  This is a particularly good option for students who continue to work full time while pursuing their certificate or degree.  As an additional benefit, some programs have lower tuitions than the more traditional on campus options.  Ancillary expenses such as for commuting, textbooks and school supplies may be reduced as well.  Just keep in mind that any requirements for clinical training or internships must still be met, but they can often be completed in area healthcare facilities.  If you can learn without the formal structure of attending supervised classes on campus, then this mode of receiving your education may be the right choice for you.  Between the online classes and the clinical training, everything necessary to achieve proficiency to work as a medical assistant is provided.    

Questions to Ask Medical Assistant Colleges

Before you can start evaluating your medical assistant school options, you need to decide on the type of credential you would like to earn, and if you would prefer attending classes on campus or online at home.  Once those decisions have been made, you can start the process of comparing schools.  As we discussed at the beginning of this article, some students limit their searches to the schools that are closest to home with the lowest tuition.  Although cost and location are important qualifiers, they are by no means the only ones.  There are several additional factors that you should look at when evaluating programs.  To help you with that process, below are some questions that you should ask about each of the schools you are considering before making your final selection.

Is the Medical Assistant Program Accredited?  There are several good reasons to make sure that the program you enroll in is accredited.  First, accreditation helps ensure that the training you receive will be both comprehensive and off the highest quality.  Next, if you plan on becoming certified, you must complete an accredited program.  Two of the accepted agencies for accreditation are the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).  If your program is not accredited by one of these agencies, you will not be eligible to take the CMA exam.  Also, if you plan on applying for a student loan or financial aid, they are often not available for non-accredited programs.  And finally, as mentioned previously, many potential employers will not hire a medical assistant who has not graduated from an accredited school.

What is the School’s Passage Rate?  The majority of accredited medical assistant schools design their programs to prepare students to pass one or more certification exams.  First, you must find out which of the certifications the schools you are considering are preparing their students to take.  If you are interested in taking the CMA for example, then obviously you will want to enroll in a program focused on that certification.  Next, find out what the school’s passage rate is for the certification and compare it to the national average.  This is one of the ways to help evaluate the quality of a school’s program.  Obviously schools with low rates are ones that you will want to avoid.

Which Programs are Offered?  As we previously covered, there are basically two paths to obtaining medical assistant training.  You can enroll in a certificate or diploma program and receive entry level training in the shortest amount of time, from as little as 6 months although the average is about 1 year.  Or you can opt to earn an Associate Degree and receive a broader education that will take about 2 years to complete in a community college or vocational school.  Whichever program you decide to pursue, make sure that the schools you are considering offer the type of program you are interested in.

Are Internships Available?  Many medical assistant schools sponsor internship programs with regional healthcare providers.  They are a great way to get hands-on practical training and experience.  They can also help students build relationships within the medical community.  And as an added benefit, they are an asset on resumes and for job interviews as well.

Is Job Placement Assistance Provided?  Finding that first job can be a daunting task for graduating medical assistant students unless they have some help from a job placement program.  Confirm that the schools you are interviewing offer job placement assistance and find out what their placement rate is.  If a school has a higher job placement rate for its students, it affirms that it has a good reputation within the medical community.  It also indicates that it has a broad network of contacts to help place students in positions.

How Large are the Classes?  Class size can be an indication of how much personal attention you will receive during your training.  Smaller classes and classes with a higher teacher to student ratio are more likely to provide greater access to instructors and one-on-one interaction.  If convenient, try to sit in on a couple of classes before enrolling in a program to see what the teaching atmosphere is like and how much attention the students receive.    

Is Class Scheduling Accessible?  If you plan on attending a medical assistant program while you continue working full time, it’s important that the school you choose offers classes that fit your schedule.  If you need to attend class in the evenings or on weekends near your home, make sure that those times are available.  You may be able to fit your classes in easier with an online school, but you will still need to schedule any clinical training or internships that may be required.  Also, find out what the policy is for making up classes that you may have to miss due to work, illness or family emergencies.

Learn How to Become a Medical Assistant

Enroll in the Right Medical Assistant Course

It’s important to start your new career off on the right foot by enrolling in a medical assistant program that will provide the proper training.  As we have covered in this article, make sure the program you choose is accredited by a recognized agency, such as the CAAHEP.  This is particularly important if you plan on taking the CMA certification exam.  And regardless of the type of credential that you plan to earn or if you attend an online or on-campus school, be sure to ask the questions we have provided so you can compare programs and make an informed decision.  And by choosing the right program you can ultimately begin a rewarding career as a medical assistant.