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Medical Assistant Degree, Training & Career Overview

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Doctors and nurses are not the only medical personnel involved in ensuring that your trip to the clinic goes smoothly. Medical assistants perform a key support role in the medical office under general physicians, podiatrists, optometrists, and other medical professionals, in both a clinical and administrative capacity. Medical assistants may assist doctors during medical exams, prepare exam rooms, fill prescriptions, give injections, and perform a number of other tasks, depending on the state in which they live. In an administrative capacity, they often bill insurers, answer telephones, and handle medical records.

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There are several ways to enter a career in medical assisting. A one-year certificate program or a two-year associate degree can provide a solid academic foundation, with courses in medical terminology, health science, clinical practice, record keeping, and more. Some physician offices will train new hires on the job without any formal medical assisting background. Voluntary certifications from medical assisting professional organizations can help job seekers find employment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts excellent job opportunities for medical assistants in the coming years, as the healthcare industry as a whole expands to meet an increased patient load. The aging population and chronic diseases will increase the number of necessary support personnel. Although those with formal training in medical assisting and professional credentials will have the best job prospects, job opportunities should be numerous for applicants from a variety of backgrounds. The middle half of medical assistants earn $23,000-33,000 a year, with the average wage at $28,000. Physician offices, outpatient care centers, hospitals, colleges and universities, and other health practitioner offices are large employers of medical assistants.

Career Specializations

  • Administrative Medical Assistants: These assistants help in physician offices with non-clinical tasks, such as bookkeeping, medical billing, and patient scheduling.
  • Clinical Medical Assistants: Clinical assistants have special training in a number of clinical areas. They may help prepare the exam room, collect laboratory specimens, change dressings, and perform other clinical tasks.
  • Optometric/Ophthalmic Assistants: These assistants help provide eye care to patients. They may instruct patients in care for contact lenses, conduct vision tests, and assist during ophthalmic surgery.
  • Podiatric Assistants: Podiatric assistants work alongside foot doctors, and may make casts of patients' feet and help the physician during surgery.

Degree Levels

  • Certificate: 1 year to complete
  • Associate Degree: 2 years to complete

Education & Certification Requirements

Formal academic training in medical assisting is available to students through one and two year programs. The one year certificate is often offered by vocational schools, and includes course work in basic medical science, medical terminology, clinical practices, and medical bookkeeping. Students will also become familiar with important laws and regulations, like the HIPAA law.

Two-year programs are commonly offered by community and junior colleges. These may include a more in-depth medical assisting curriculum, including courses in medical ethics, office procedures, and liberal arts subjects. The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs are two organizations that accredit medical assisting programs.

Formal training is not required for employment as a medical assistant, and some physician offices and hospitals will train assistants on the job. High school course work in health sciences, biology, chemistry, office administration, typing, and related topics can be helpful for getting hired without formal training.

There are no mandatory certifications required in most states to become a medical assistant. However, voluntary credentials are available from professional groups, and can help an assistant obtain employment or advance in their career. The American Association of Medical Assistants offers the Certified Medical Assistant credential, and the American Medical Technologists organization also has a certification program. (BLS)

Salary Information

The average salary a medical assistant can earn will depend on their training and regional location. Those with formal training can earn $28,000-33,000 a year. Those who learn their skills on the job can expect initial offers of around $23,000. General hospitals, colleges and universities, physicians offices, and outpatient care centers are the healthcare organizations employing the most medical assistants. Alaska, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Hawaii are the areas with the highest average salaries for medical assistants. (BLS)

Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the job market for medical assistants will grow 34% during the 2008-2018 period, which is much faster than the national average growth rate of 7-10%. The entire healthcare industry will be growing in the coming years, as the Baby Boom population ages and seeks a wider array of healthcare services. Chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, will also be increasing the demand for care. New medical technology will also expand the types of diagnostic tests and procedures that can be aided by medical assistants.

Medical assistants should have no trouble finding employment in the next few years, especially those with formal training and a relevant professional certification. The new increase in jobs, plus the need to replace those retiring and switching occupations, will mean a surplus of available opportunities. Healthcare offices with large numbers of support staff, such as multiple-physician practices, outpatient care centers, and clinics, will be hiring large numbers of medical assistants. (BLS)

Related Careers

Medical office administrators are also important support personnel in the healthcare environment, although these professionals do not work on clinical medical tasks. Instead, they take care of the many administrative concerns in the doctor's office. Tasks such as medical billing, patient records maintenance, and bookkeeping are the realm of these workers.

Medical billing and coding specialists are a more specialized type of medical office administrator, that works primarily in the insurance and reimbursement aspect of office administration. These specialists learn coding systems, to translate doctors' diagnoses into 3-digit codes which are then used to bill Medicare and private insurance companies. Medical coders may be employed in hospitals, doctor's offices, pharmacies, or with insurance companies.

Medical transcriptionists are trained in turning the audio recordings of physicians and healthcare staff into written reports. These reports are then used to augment a patient's medical file, or are used in correspondence. Transcriptionists may work in hospitals or clinics, of they may telecommute from their home office.

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