About 6 out of 10 medical assistants work in offices of physicians.
Some medical assistants are trained on the job, but many complete
1- or 2-year programs in vocational-technical high schools,
postsecondary vocational schools, and community and junior colleges.
Medical assistants is projected to be one of the fastest growing
occupations over the 2004-14 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 administrative and clinical tasks
to keep the offices of physicians, podiatrists, chiropractors,
and other health practitioners 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.
Ophthalmic medical assistants and podiatric medical
assistants are examples of specialized assistants who have
additional duties. 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. Podiatric medical assistants make castings of feet,
expose and develop x rays, and assist podiatrists 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.
Many work part time, evenings, or weekends.
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 1 year, resulting
in a certificate or diploma, or 2 years, resulting in an associate
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 health care facilities.
Both the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education
Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education
Schools (ABHES) accredit programs in medical assisting. In 2005,
there were over 500 medical assisting programs accredited by CAAHEP
and about 170 accredited by ABHES. The Committee on Accreditation
for Ophthalmic Medical Personnel approved 17 programs in ophthalmic
medical assisting and 2 programs in ophthalmic clinical 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 health care 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 or giving injections.
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; 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.
Medical assistants held about 387,000 jobs in 2004. About 6 out
of 10 worked in offices of physicians; about 14 percent worked
in public and private hospitals, including inpatient and outpatient
facilities; and 11 percent worked in offices of other health practitioners,
such as chiropractors, optometrists, and podiatrists. The rest
worked mostly in outpatient care centers, public and private educational
services, other ambulatory health care services, State and local
government agencies, employment services, medical and diagnostic
laboratories, and nursing care facilities.
Employment of medical assistants is expected to grow much faster
than average for all occupations through the year 2014 as the
health care industry expands because of technological advances
in medicine and the growth and aging of the population. Increasing
utilization of medical assistants in the rapidly growing health
care industry will further stimulate job growth. In fact, medical
assistants is projected to be one of the fastest growing occupations
over the 2004–14 period.
Employment growth will be driven by the increase in the number
of group practices, clinics, and other health care 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, a rapidly growing sector of the health care industry.
In view of the preference of many health care employers for trained
personnel, job prospects should be best for medical assistants
with formal training or experience, particularly for those with
The earnings of medical assistants vary, depending on their experience,
skill level, and location. Median annual earnings of medical assistants
were $24,610 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between
$20,650 and $28,930. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $18,010,
and the highest 10 percent earned more than $34,650. Median annual
earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of medical
assistants in May 2004 were:
Colleges, universities, and professional
Outpatient care centers
General medical and surgical hospitals
Offices of physicians
Offices of other health practitioners
Workers in other medical support occupations include dental assistants,
medical records and health information technicians, medical secretaries,
occupational therapist assistants and aides, pharmacy aides, and
physical therapist assistants and aides.
Sources of Additional Information
Information about career opportunities and the Certified Medical
Assistant exam is available from:
American Association of Medical Assistants, 20 North Wacker
Dr., Suite 1575, Chicago, IL 60606. Internet: http://www.aama-ntl.org/
Information about career opportunities and the Registered Medical
Assistant certification exam is available from:
American Medical Technologists, 710 Higgins Rd., Park Ridge,
Information about career opportunities, training programs, and
certification for ophthalmic medical personnel is available from: