November 05, 2007
Adapted from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition
- Some medical assistants are trained on the job, but many complete one- or two-year programs in vocational-technical high schools, postsecondary vocational schools and community and junior colleges.
- Medical assistant is projected to be the fastest growing occupation over the 2002-12 period.
- Job prospects should be best for medical assistants with formal training or experience, particularly those with certification.
Nature of the Work
Medical assistants perform routine administrative and clinical tasks to keep the offices and clinics of physicians, podiatrists, chiropractors and optometrists running smoothly. They should not be confused with physician assistants who examine, diagnose and treat patients under the direct supervision of a physician.
The duties of medical assistants vary from office to office, depending on the location and size of the practice and the practitioner’s specialty. In small practices, medical assistants usually are “generalists,” handling both administrative and clinical duties and reporting directly to an office manager, physician or other health practitioner. Those in large practices tend to specialize in a particular area, under the supervision of department administrators.
Medical assistants perform many administrative duties, including answering telephones, greeting patients, updating and filing patients’ medical records, filling out insurance forms, handling correspondence, scheduling appointments, arranging for hospital admission and laboratory services, and handling billing and bookkeeping.
Clinical duties vary according to state law and include taking medical histories and recording vital signs, explaining treatment procedures to patients, preparing patients for examination, and assisting the physician during the examination. Medical assistants collect and prepare laboratory specimens or perform basic laboratory tests on the premises, dispose of contaminated supplies, and sterilize medical instruments. They instruct patients about medications and special diets, prepare and administer medications as directed by a physician, authorize drug refills as directed, telephone prescriptions to a pharmacy, draw blood, prepare patients for X- rays, take electrocardiograms, remove sutures, and change dressings.
Medical assistants also may arrange examining-room instruments and equipment, purchase and maintain supplies and equipment, and keep waiting and examining rooms neat and clean.
Assistants who specialize have additional duties. Podiatric medical assistants make castings of feet, expose and develop X-rays, and assist podiatrists in surgery. Ophthalmic medical assistants help ophthalmologists provide eye care. They conduct diagnostic tests, measure and record vision, and test eye muscle function. They also show patients how to insert, remove and care for contact lenses, and they apply eye dressings. Under the direction of the physician, ophthalmic medical assistants may administer eye medications. They also maintain optical and surgical instruments and may assist the ophthalmologist in surgery.
Medical assistants work in well-lighted, clean environments. They constantly interact with other people and may have to handle several responsibilities at once.
Most full-time medical assistants work a regular 40-hour week. Some work part-time, evenings or weekends.
Medical assistants held about 365,000 jobs in 2002. Almost 60 percent worked in offices of physicians; about 14 percent worked in public and private hospitals, including inpatient and outpatient facilities; and almost 10 percent worked in offices of other health practitioners, such as chiropractors and podiatrists. The rest worked mostly in outpatient care centers, public and private educational services, other ambulatory healthcare services, state and local government agencies, medical and diagnostic laboratories, nursing care facilities, and employment services.
Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement
Most employers prefer graduates of formal programs in medical assisting. Such programs are offered in vocational-technical high schools, postsecondary vocational schools, and community and junior colleges. Postsecondary programs usually last either one year, resulting in a certificate or diploma, or two years, resulting in an associate’s degree. Courses cover anatomy, physiology and medical terminology, as well as typing, transcription, recordkeeping, accounting and insurance processing. Students learn laboratory techniques, clinical and diagnostic procedures, pharmaceutical principles, the administration of medications, and first aid. They study office practices, patient relations, medical law and ethics. Accredited programs include an internship that provides practical experience in physicians’ offices, hospitals or other healthcare facilities.
Two agencies recognized by the US Department of Education accredit programs in medical assisting: the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). In 2002, there were 495 medical assisting programs accredited by CAAHEP and about 170 accredited by ABHES. The Committee on Accreditation for Ophthalmic Medical Personnel approved 14 programs in ophthalmic medical assisting.
Formal training in medical assisting, while generally preferred, is not always required. Some medical assistants are trained on the job, although this practice is less common than in the past. Applicants usually need a high school diploma or the equivalent. Recommended high school courses include mathematics, health, biology, typing, bookkeeping, computers and office skills. Volunteer experience in the healthcare field also is helpful.
Although medical assistants are not licensed, some states require them to take a test or a course before they can perform certain tasks, such as taking X-rays. Employers prefer to hire experienced workers or certified applicants who have passed a national examination, indicating that the medical assistant meets certain standards of competence. The American Association of Medical Assistants awards the Certified Medical Assistant credential; the American Medical Technologists awards the Registered Medical Assistant credential; the American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants awards the Podiatric Medical Assistant Certified credential; and the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology awards credentials at three levels: Certified Ophthalmic Assistant, Certified Ophthalmic Technician and Certified Ophthalmic Medical Technologist.
Medical assistants deal with the public; therefore, they must be neat and well-groomed and have a courteous, pleasant manner. Medical assistants must be able to put patients at ease and explain physicians’ instructions. They must respect the confidential nature of medical information. Clinical duties require a reasonable level of manual dexterity and visual acuity.
Medical assistants may be able to advance to office manager. They may qualify for a variety of administrative support occupations or may teach medical assisting. With additional education, some enter other health occupations, such as nursing and medical technology.
Employment of medical assistants is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2012 as the health-services industry expands because of technological advances in medicine and a growing and aging population. Increasing utilization of medical assistants in the rapidly-growing healthcare industries will result in fast employment growth for the occupation. In fact, medical assistants is projected to be the fastest growing occupation over the 2002–12 period.
Employment growth will be driven by the increase in the number of group practices, clinics and other healthcare facilities that need a high proportion of support personnel, particularly the flexible medical assistant who can handle both administrative and clinical duties. Medical assistants work primarily in outpatient settings, which are expected to exhibit much faster-than-average growth.
In view of the preference of many healthcare employers for trained personnel, job prospects should be best for medical assistants with formal training or experience, and particularly for those with certification.
The earnings of medical assistants vary, depending on their experience, skill level and location. Median annual earnings of medical assistants were $23,940 in 2002. The middle 50 percent earned between $20,260 and $28,410. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $17,640, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $34,130. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of medical assistants in 2002 were as follows:
- General medical and surgical hospitals: $24,460
- Offices of physicians: $24,260
- Outpatient care centers: $23,980
- Other ambulatory healthcare services: $23,440
- Offices of other health practitioners: $21,620