There are roughly 484,000 medical assistants working in the United States. Job-growth statistics suggest this occupation will grow by 34 percent over the next ten years; this is much faster than the average rate of growth for all jobs combined.
Medical assistants are responsible for administrative tasks in the offices of health-care practitioners. The type of tasks undertaken by medical assistants largely depends on the size and nature of the practice. The smaller the practice, the more likely it is that the assistant will be a generalist, capable of fulfilling a number of administrative duties and most likely reporting directly to the office manager or the health-care practitioner.
Larger practices typically employ medical assistants who specialize in a particular type of medicine; these employees are supervised by department administrators.
Administrative medical assistants keep patient medical histories current, fill out insurance forms, answer phones, welcome patients, deal with mail and email correspondence, schedule appointments, and take care of bookkeeping. The work done by clinical medical assistants varies from state to state because of regulations. In all cases, clinical medical assistants record vital signs, update patient histories, explain treatment procedures, get patients ready for the medical examination, and assist the doctor during the examination. Gathering and preparing specimens for the laboratory, disposing of materials that are contaminated, and sterilizing medical equipment are all possible duties given to medical assistants. The physician might ask the medical assistant to speak with patients regarding special diets or medication. In states that allow it, some medical assistants also give medications, call in drug refills, draw blood, perform electrocardiograms, change bandages, and take out sutures. Medical assistants also make sure the examining room contains the instruments and equipment the doctor will use. Some are responsible for ordering supplies and maintaining equipment.
Sometimes medical assistants specialize in a specific area of medicine. For example, ophthalmic medical assistants work with an ophthalmologist to provide patients with eye care. They run diagnostic tests, examine eye-muscle function, and record vision. In some cases, they apply eye bandages and teach patients to insert, take out, and clean contact lenses. Under direct supervision, ophthalmic medical assistants administer eye medications. Most are also responsible for maintaining medical equipment and, in some cases, acting as the doctor’s assistant during surgery. Optometric assistants have some similar tasks, as they work with optometrists. They teach patients how to use and clean contact lenses, run preliminary tests, and are at the ready to provide whatever assistance the optometrist requests. Podiatric medical assistants may act as the doctor’s assistant during surgery. They also are trained to make molds of patients’ feet and develop x-rays.
Medical assistants work in clean, well-lit and well-organized offices. Because they deal with patients, they must be friendly. The ability to communicate clearly is essential. Medical assistants must be able to handle a multitude of tasks without becoming overly stressed. Manual dexterity is necessary for those handling surgical tools.
While some medical assistants work part time, most work a standard 40-hour week. Those who are employed by offices that keep evening or weekend hours for patients’ convenience may be put on a rotating schedule.
Employers favor applicants who, at a minimum, have a high school diploma. Beyond that, there are no training or educational requirements. However, many medical assistants are graduates of a vocational high school program or a postsecondary program offered by a community or junior college. These are usually one-year programs that earn students a diploma or certificate, or a two-year program that culminates in an associate’s degree. Coursework includes formal instruction in medical terminology, physiology, anatomy, transcription, keyboarding, accounting, and insurance processing. Students are also trained in laboratory techniques, diagnostic procedures, and first aid. Many accredited programs give students hands-on experience with an internship in a health-care facility.
Some medical assistants choose to become certified because they will have a better chance of finding work and will advance more quickly. A number of groups, including the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) and the Association of Medical Technologists (AMT), offer certification.
Medical assistants typically advance their careers by specializing, taking continuing education classes, or becoming certified. Some medical assistants return to school to become instructors, and others to become nurses. Medical assistants with administrative experience can, with time, become office managers.
The median annual salary paid to medical assistants is around $29,000. Midrange medical assistant salaries are between $24,000 and $34,000 a year. Those in the lowest 10 percent make less than $21,000, and those in the highest 10 percent earn around $40,000 a year.