How to Become a Medical Assistant

February 23, 2024
4 min read


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 2/23/24

Let’s talk about how to become a medical assistant! Follow along to learn all the steps you need to know about becoming a medical assistant.

Entering the field of medical assisting offers a fulfilling career where you can contribute to healthcare and impact people's lives. As a medical assistant, you'll handle various administrative and clinical duties to aid physicians and healthcare teams.

This guide covers everything you need to begin your path in medical assisting, including educational needs, certification choices, and future career opportunities.

Let’s get started!

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What Do Medical Assistants Do?

A better question might be, “what don’t medical assistants do?” Medical assistants have a wide range of responsibilities that require both administrative and clinical skills. They are responsible for taking patient vitals, preparing patients for exams, and assisting physicians during exams. 

Medical assistants also perform administrative tasks such as scheduling appointments, maintaining medical records, and billing and coding insurance claims. As if that weren’t enough hats to wear, they also handle laboratory tasks, such as preparing and handling lab specimens and administering medications as directed by a physician. 

The responsibilities of a medical assistant can vary depending on the type of healthcare facility or practice in which they are employed, but they are always an integral part of the healthcare team. Here are a few typical medical assistant responsibilities according to an Indeed report: 

  • Updating patient records
  • Cleaning and preparing exam rooms before patient appointments
  • Administering medications under a Physician’s supervision
  • Sending tissue and fluid samples for laboratory analysis
  • Scheduling and confirming appointments
  • Calculating billing amounts
  • Explaining medical procedures to patients
  • Maintaining medical inventory by ordering new supplies and equipment as needed 

Have we piqued your interest? Read on to learn how you can become a medical assistant, as well as what to expect in terms of a career outlook.

Steps to Becoming a Medical Assistant

The steps to becoming a medical assistant vary depending on the state you live in and the type of employer you are seeking to work for, but generally, the steps are as follows:

1. Obtain a High School Diploma or GED

Medical assistants typically need at least a high school diploma or equivalent certification to begin their training.

2. Complete a Medical Assisting Program

You will need to complete a medical assisting program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). These programs typically take around nine to twelve months to complete.

You can also choose to earn an associate degree rather than a certification. Completing an associate degree in medical assisting is a great way to prepare for a career as a medical assistant while keeping your options open. An associate degree program typically takes two years to complete and provides students with a more in-depth education in the field of medical assisting. 

These programs often cover a wider range of topics than certificate programs and provide students with more hands-on experience through clinical rotations. An associate degree program will give you the knowledge and skills you need to perform both administrative and clinical tasks. 

Additionally, some employers may prefer to hire medical assistants who have completed an associate degree. These programs typically take around nine to twelve months to complete, though there are some online medical assistant programs that only take as little as four months.

3. Obtain Certification

Medical assistants have the option to become certified through the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) or the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Certification is not always required, but it can increase your chances of getting hired and getting higher pay.

4. Gain Work Experience

After completing your medical assisting program, you will need to start looking for work as a medical assistant. Many employers will require some level of experience before they will hire you. Remember, medical assistants have a wide variety of responsibilities, so you’ll need to build up your qualifications in several fields, such as:

  • Clerical skills
  • Inventory management
  • Communication & people skills
  • Computer and data entry 
  • Lab preparation & protocol
  • Exam preparation & protocol
  • Demonstrated grasp of human anatomy, biology, and a detailed understanding of the procedures you will help healthcare professionals prepare for. 

If you aren’t able to secure work experience as a medical assistant right after certification, focus on securing positions in which you can practice the above skills and keep trying. 

5. Keep Your Certification Up-to-Date

Medical assistants are usually required to renew their certification every few years.

It is important to note that regulations and requirements vary from state to state, so it's a good idea to check with your state's medical board to make sure you meet all the necessary requirements to work as a medical assistant in your state.

Medical Assistant Salary and Career Outlook

According to a recent Indeed job report, the average pay for medical assistants in the United States is $38,270 per year, with the top earners making closer to $65,000. Factors contributing to this number's variation include location, years of experience, and employer. 

The top-earning state for Medical assistants is Washington, with an average annual salary of $47,320. It is followed by the District of Columbia at $46,690, Alaska at $46,390, California at $44,780, and Massachusetts at $44,200. These states offer Medical Assistants salaries that are substantially higher than the national average.

Why Should You Become a Medical Assistant?

Becoming a medical assistant is a wise career choice for many reasons; one of the most important being that they are in high demand. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 14% from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average occupation. This is partly due to the increasing number of physicians and other healthcare professionals choosing to employ medical assistants to help them manage their practices.

Not only are medical assistants in high demand, but they are also a valuable part of the healthcare structure. They are a vital link between patients and physicians and help ensure that the healthcare system runs smoothly and efficiently. 

With the demand for healthcare expected to increase in the future, the need for medical assistants will only continue to rise, making it a smart choice for those looking for a career in healthcare.

FAQs: Becoming a Medical Assistant

Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about how to become a medical assistant. 

1. How Long Does It Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

The amount of time it takes to become a medical assistant can vary depending on the educational program and the type of certification or licensing required in your state. Generally, it can take anywhere from several months to a year to complete a medical assisting program. 

Most programs offer certificate or diploma options that usually take between six to twelve months to complete. Some programs also offer associate degrees, which can take two years to finish.

After completing an educational program, medical assistants are typically required to pass an exam, such as the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) exam, to become certified. 

The certification process can take a few weeks or months, depending on the certification exam you take and your study schedule. It's also worth noting that some states may have additional requirements for medical assistants, such as background checks or continuing education credits, which may add some time to the process of becoming a medical assistant.

2. How Much Does It Cost to Become a Medical Assistant?

Typically, the cost of a medical assistant certificate or diploma program can range from $2,000 to $15,000. The cost of an associate degree program can be higher, ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 or more.

The cost of becoming a medical assistant can vary depending on a number of factors, such as the type of educational program you choose, location, and whether you are attending a private or public institution.

Additionally, there are also other costs associated with becoming a medical assistant, such as books, clinical uniforms, and certification exam fees. These costs can vary, but they can add several hundred dollars to the overall cost.

3. Is Being a Medical Assistant Good for Med School?

Being a medical assistant can be an excellent stepping stone for any student who is interested in going to medical school. Medical assisting can provide valuable experience in a healthcare setting and help you develop important skills such as patient care, communication, and time management. 

Additionally, medical assisting can give you an understanding of the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of a healthcare professional, which can help you decide if you are truly interested in pursuing a career in medicine.

However, it should be noted that medical assisting is not a prerequisite for medical school, and it can be a time-consuming addition to a medical school CV. Medical school admissions committees look at a wide range of factors when evaluating applicants, including academic performance, extracurricular activities, and personal characteristics.

4. Is Being a Medical Assistant Harder Than Being a Nurse?

Being a medical assistant and being a nurse are two different roles that require different levels of education and responsibilities. Medical assistants have less education and training than nurses, and their responsibilities are typically more limited in scope. 

Ultimately, both roles can be challenging in their own ways, and the level of difficulty will depend on a variety of factors, such as the work environment, the individual's level of experience and training, and the specific tasks and responsibilities involved.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a medical assistant can be a valuable and rewarding career choice for those who are interested in healthcare and want to join the workforce sooner than later. The demand for medical assistants is high, and the role is becoming more and more integral to the healthcare system. 

The process of becoming a medical assistant can vary, but generally, it involves completing a short educational program and passing a certification exam. These programs can range from a few months to two years, depending on the level of education you choose to pursue.

Overall, becoming a medical assistant is a practical and satisfying career choice. With a high demand for medical assistants, and the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of patients, it is a career path worth considering.

Good luck!

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