Medical assistants are an integral part of the health care team, primarily in the outpatient care arena. Although they are not licensed -- and so have a more limited scope of practice than a licensed vocational or registered nurse -- MAs provide vital support to physicians and other health care professionals, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants. A medical assistant may perform clinical or administrative duties only, or may practice in a setting where she combines the roles. Some MAs become certified, a process that offers formal recognition of knowledge and training.
Training or Formal Education
Most states allow medical assistants to be trained on the job. However, community colleges, technical-vocational schools and some universities also offer formal education programs. MAs who complete formal training typically obtain a certificate or diploma, rather than a degree; although some programs offer an associate degree. Most programs take about one year to complete. Students may train only in clinical duties, only in administrative duties, or may receive training in both disciplines. Training may vary according to the state, but formal training programs are typically accredited -- and some states may require formal training for advanced procedures, such as performing X-rays.
Clinical Vs. Administrative
Clinical medical assistants provide direct patient care under the supervision of a physician or licensed nurse. Depending on the state, a clinical MA may take a medical history, prepare patients for examination, collect and prepare laboratory specimens, administer medications, or perform diagnostic tests. Administrative MAs perform clerical functions. They may schedule appointments, answer the telephone, update files and manage medical records, arrange for hospital admissions or handle correspondence. In some offices, the administrative MA also performs billing and bookkeeping services.
Certification offers an MA the opportunity to show that he has met the minimum standard of knowledge and experience in his field. National certification is available from several organizations -- each has different requirements -- most require the applicant to be at least 18 years old at the time of the examination. Other requirements vary. For example, an MA must graduate from an accredited program to take the certification examination from the American Association of Medical Assistants. To qualify, their studies must include a clinical internship; and re-certification will be required at regular intervals.
A Supportive Role
Medical assistants are important to the patient, the physician, and the overall health care team. For patients, the medical assistant acts as a liaison, providing information and education, as well as emotional support. A well-organized and knowledgeable MA can make a physician’s day run more smoothly. Experienced MAs may be able to take on tasks that would otherwise be done by the doctor, leaving more time for patient care. For example, the MA might take out sutures or apply dressings in a surgeon’s office; or MAs with specialized training may assist ophthalmologists or podiatrists in surgery.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Medical Assistants
- American Association of Medical Assistants: What Is a Medical Assistant?
- American Association of Medical Assistants: What Is a CMA (AAMA)?
- American Association of Medical Assistants: AAMA 2012–2013 CMA (AAMA) Occupational Analysis
- American Association of Medical Assistants: FAQs on Medical Assisting
- Photo Credit diego_cervo/iStock/Getty Images
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