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What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

What medical assistants do may vary depending on the setting, but they play a crucial role in the day-to-day operations of hospitals, physician’s offices, and healthcare facilities. Medical assistants (MAs) treat patients with various ailments, injuries, and chronic conditions. They must also respond to medical emergencies, assist patients and their families with sensitive matters (such as treatment options and medication recommendations), and manage operational logistics at their place of employment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 500,000 licensed MAs are currently employed in the United States. The majority of these employees work a full-time schedule. However, some medical assistants may be employed part-time, or primarily work shifts in the evenings or on weekends; this is common at hospitals and other facilities open 24 hours a day. Learn more about how to become a medical assistant below.


I. Types of Medical Assistants

What is a medical assistant and what does a medical assistant do? According to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), primary job duties for MAs generally fall into one of two categories: administrative or clinical.

Clinical Medical Assistant: Medical assistants are not qualified to perform the same procedures as primary physicians, surgeons, RNs, or other higher-level healthcare providers. However, medical assistant training prepares these individuals to perform non-invasive exams on patients and to perform certain tasks under physician direction and supervision. According to the AAMA, important clinical skills for medical assistants include the following:

  • Recording a patient's medical history: Before the lead doctor or nurse arrives, medical assistants must document the patient's current symptoms, medical history, risk factors, and other relevant concerns that will help the primary physician deliver an accurate diagnosis and proceed with a comprehensive treatment plan.
  • Explaining medical matters with patients and their families: Medical assistants will often be called upon to meet with patients and their relatives to discuss the individual's diagnosis, symptom management, treatment options, prescribed medication, dietary restrictions, and other key matters related to their conditions and recovery.
  • Preparing patients for examinations: Before the main exam takes place, medical assistants will inform the patient about what will take place and, if necessary, explain how different steps of the exam will be performed.
  • Administering medications: In some cases, medical assistants will be asked to prepare medications and deliver them to patients. Assistants also coordinate prescription refills as needed.
  • Performing medical procedures: The tests and exams medical assistants are asked to perform will include (but not necessarily be limited to) the following medical assistant duties:
    • Drawing blood and other bodily specimens
    • Performing tests on collected specimens and recording results in the patient's medical chart
    • Performing an electrocardiogram (EKG) for patients with heart-related diseases or injuries
    • Removing stitches and sutures
    • Replacing wound dressings (such as bandages or casts)

Administrative Medical Assistant: In addition to clinical duties, medical assistants will often assist administrative staff behind the front desk. What is a medical assistant's list of administrative duties? The AAMA notes that MAs are commonly assigned the following:

  • Assisting new patients and their families: Medical assistants deliver forms patients must submit in order to see the primary physician, and answer any questions the patient and/or the patient's relatives might have about the treatment or medical procedure in question. At hospitals or outpatient centers, assistants might also facilitate visitor check-ins for current patients.
  • Managing the appointment schedule: Depending on their workplace, medical assistants may be called upon to answer patient phone calls and schedule appointments, call patients to issue reminders about upcoming visits, and otherwise ensure the facility's patient calendar is organized and up-to-date.
  • Contacting insurance companies: Although many clinics, physician's offices, and hospitals hire in-house insurance billers and coders to handle complex insurance demands, medical assistants are often asked to assist these individuals by completing insurance forms, contacting providers, and assisting patients with insurance-related questions.
  • Entering patient data: Virtually all healthcare facilities now maintain a computer network that includes data for all current patients. Medical assistants will regularly enter and update patient records, and also be asked to organize the facility's files in order to maintain an efficient system.

II. Required Skills

In order to perform their jobs effectively, medical assistants must equip themselves with certain professional skills. Certification programs for MAs incorporate the following competencies into their curriculum.

Medical Terminology: MAs must have extensive working knowledge of common medical names and terms. These include:

  • Organs, bones, muscles, fluids, and systems that comprise the human anatomy, as well as Latin prefixes and suffixes pertaining to the body
  • Viruses, bacteria, parasites, and other disease agents that can impact human health
  • General symptoms of different diseases, ailments, and physical injuries
  • Treatment, medication, and/or therapy procedures prescribed for various medical conditions
  • Instruments, devices, and machines used to diagnose, monitor, or treat patients

The AAMA's official website features a 'Medical Terminology Practice Test' that consists of 50 questions pertaining to the items listed above.

Communication Skills: Being clear, concise, and having good listening skills are integral to the medical assistant profession. Whether they are informing a patient about his current condition, updating a physician about someone's diagnostic status, or submitting forms to an insurance company, MAs spend much of their shift communicating with other people in one way or another. According to the AAMA, certified MAs are "uniquely qualified to 'speak the patient’s language' and serve as the communication liaison between the busy physician and patients who are often afraid to ask questions."

Technical Skills: The intrinsic value of what a medical assistant does is often measured by the number of exams, tests, and other medical tasks he or she is able to properly perform. What does a medical assistant do requiring these technical skills? Although surgeries and other extensive procedures will generally be handled by higher-ranking physicians, MAs are often charged with the following technical medical assistant duties related to patient care:

  • Drawing blood and obtaining samples for testing, as well as analyzing specimens
  • Conducting electrocardiograms (EKGs) and performing respiratory tests
  • Replacing sutures and redressing wounds
  • Performing "sterilization" techniques
  • The administration of oral, parenteral, topical, and rectal medications
  • Safe disposal of used syringes, bodily fluids/samples, and other biomedical materials

Office Management Skills: Although most clinics and hospitals hire medical office managers to oversee day-to-day operations, medical assistants should be able to perform different tasks that help increase efficiency and serve patients quickly. While core skills like typing, creating original documents, sending emails, and placing phone calls will be in-demand at any healthcare facility, other office management skills will be specific to certain establishments. MAs at physician's offices, for instance, may be asked to schedule appointments and issue reminder calls to patients about scheduled visits, while hospitals require MAs to assist with visitor check-ins and perform initial diagnostic readings on new patients.

III. MA Specializations

In addition to clinical and administrative duties, many medical assistants have received specialized training in a particular healthcare field. While a specialization is not necessarily required to be hired as an MA, the expertise may be used to leverage a higher salary and improve job security. What is a medical assistant specialization? There are many different clinical and administrative specializations available; some common specializations for certified medical assistants include:

  • Family Medicine: The generalized branch of medical treatment aimed at patients of all ages, although patients who belong to certain age demographics, such as children or the elderly, may be referred to a specialist for certain conditions.
  • Pediatrics: The branch of medicine exclusively aimed at infants, children, and adolescent patients.
  • Geriatrics: The branch of medicine exclusively targeting elderly men and women.
  • Cardiology: The branch of medicine dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of heart conditions.
  • Oncology: The branch of medicine dealing with diagnosis, treatment, and research of different types of cancer; palliative care for terminal patients also falls under the realm of an oncologist and his or her staff.
  • Allergy and Immunology: The branch of medicine that assists patients with various allergies and other adverse reactions to plants, animals, and other extraneous factors.
  • Gastroenterology: The branch of medicine concentrated on diseases and conditions affecting the stomach, intestines, and other components of the digestive system.
  • Ophthalmology: The medical branch focused on diseases and conditions impacting eyes and vision.
  • Medical Billing and Coding: The process of recording patient information using a specialized coding system, and then submitting statements that enable the patient's insurer to bill for treatments, prescriptions, and other services rendered.
  • Health Information Management: The practice of maintaining accurate, up-to-date medical records for a healthcare facility's current patient list.

IV. Career Outlook and Opportunities

Now that you understand how to become a medical assistant, learn more about the job outlook for this career. The medical assisting career is one of the fastest growing professions in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are roughly 591,300 licensed MAs currently working in the United States ― and between 2014 and 2024, the sector is expected to increase by roughly 23%, which is faster than the projected rate of growth for all occupations. This boost will result in nearly 139,000 new positions, according to BLS estimates.

BLS data indicates that California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York boast the highest numbers of employed MAs. However, it should be noted that all five states place among the six U.S. states with the highest populations. In terms of location quotient (or number of jobs compared to the number of total state residents), the top five states for medical assistant employment are Arizona, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Florida, and Michigan. What do medical assistants make? The BLS notes that the median annual salary for MAs (as of 2015) is $30,590, which equals about $14.71 per hour. The lowest 10% of licensed MAs make just above $22,000 per year (or $10.60 per hour), while the highest 10% earn an annual wage in excess of $43,000 (or $21.10 per hour).

What do medical assistants make?
These are the median salaries for medical assistants working at specific types of medical facilities:

Employer + Percentage of Industry Median Annual Salary Median Hourly Wage
Physician's Office (14.19%) $31,960 $15.37
Offices of Health Practitioners (7.00%) $28,810 $13.85
Outpatient Care Centers (5.85%) $33,550 $16.13
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals (1.66%) $33,140 $15.93
Medical and diagnostic labs (1.24%) $31,930 $15.35

Salaries will also vary by city and state. According to BLS data, the top U.S. states and districts in terms of annual mean wage for MAs are as follows:

  • District of Columbia ($39,780)
  • Alaska ($38,800)
  • Massachusetts ($38,090)
  • Washington ($36,400)
  • Minnesota ($36,200)

The top metropolitan area for medical assisting salaries is the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA area, where MAs earn $44,590 per year. Other high-paying metro areas include Fairbanks, AK, Boston, MA, and various other cities in California (San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Vallejo).

V. MA as a Path to Registered Nurse

Many medical assistants are able to achieve even higher levels of career success by becoming registered nurses (RNs). In addition to all of the administrative and clinical medical assistant duties listed above, RNs are responsible for creating care plans ― detailed schedules for therapy sessions, medication, and other treatment procedures ― for each patient under their care. At large hospitals or clinics, there are usually multiple nurses to cover the relatively high volume of patients. RNs are also allowed to perform more intensive medical procedures, such as inserting IV drips or urinary catheters.

Job growth for RNs is projected to rise 16% between 2014 and 2024. It should also be noted that this industry boasts a higher number of current employees ― roughly 2.7 million in 2014 ― so a 16% increase represents 439,300 positions. RNs earn a much higher salary than MAs; in 2015, RN median annual earnings amounted to $67,490, or $32.45 per hour. MAs who wish to become RNs must receive some level of formal education and obtain licensure by passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). What is a medical assistant's academic path to becoming an RN? According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), there are generally three different academic routes prospective RNs may choose from in order to earn the training they will need to prepare for the NCLEX-RN and eventually secure a job.

  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree usually requires a four-year commitment, although roughly half of the coursework will cover English, humanities, social sciences, and other core subjects that, while relevant, are not specifically related to professional nursing. The remaining courses delve into anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry, nutrition and dietary science, psychology, and other nursing-related fields. Many state universities, private colleges, and other four-year institutions offer BSN programs ― and in recent years, online BSN programs have become much more abundant. The program will also consist of a supervised clinical portion.
  • An Associate Degree of Nursing (ADN) typically requires a two- or three-year commitment. While these programs do not require the same range of courses BSN degrees do, the ADN will consist of courses in several different scientific and health-related fields. The supervised clinical portion will also be included. ADNs are usually available at community colleges, vocational/technical schools, and other two-year institutions.
  • A specialized hospital diploma generally requires the same commitment as an ADN (two to three years). These diplomas will include supervised clinical experience, but unlike BSN and ADN degree programs, most diploma programs exclusively cover nurse skill-training and NCLEX-RN prep. And as the name implies, these degrees are typically awarded by hospitals and other healthcare institutions.

Students conclude all three of the above educational programs by sitting for the NCLEX-RN, which is computer-based and primarily consists of multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. The number of questions will vary; every test will have a minimum of 75 questions and a maximum of 265, and students have six hours to complete the exam.

Generally speaking, any of these three educational pathways will help medical assistants advance in their careers as RNs. However, in recent years, employers nationwide have begun to hire a greater percentage of nursing job applicants who have earned BSN degrees. In fact, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently advocated that 80% of nurses hold BSN degrees or higher by 2020 ― driving this demand up even higher.

Finally, please note that RN licensure requirements will vary from state-to-state ― and as a result, nurses will have to be recertified if they change their state of residence.

VI. Launching an MA Career

While in high demand, candidates must take the time to investigate how to become medical assistants as well as find positions that fully take advantage of their skill sets. Let's consider some effective strategies for finding job openings, landing formal interviews, and then impressing prospective employers.

Step #1: Find CMA Openings

According to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), the body that awards the official CMA credential, there were roughly 584,970 employed medical assistants working in the United States in 2014. Of the total number:

  • About 60% worked in physicians' offices
  • About 15% worked in medical/surgical hospitals
  • About 10% worked for "other" healthcare practitioners, such as chiropractors or psychiatrists

The remaining worked in "outpatient care centers, public and private educational services, other ambulatory health care services, state and local government agencies, medical and diagnostic laboratories, nursing care facilities, and employment services."

As a job-seeking MA, you should first decide which type of healthcare facility you would prefer to work in, and then contact the corresponding hiring office. If you would rather work in a hospital or large private practice, you can often obtain job openings and other employment info on official websites for these establishments. College or university career centers can also be great resources for job leads. Additionally, you can search for career opportunities using the following online job aggregators:

To learn more about job prospects in your state, please see our state pages. Simply select your state from the map to review information about medical assistance careers, salary, and certification requirements in your area.

Step #2: Effectively Market Yourself

In order to secure a paid position, aspiring certified medical assistants must promote their skills and experience to potential employers. Since each job opening will feature a unique list of requisite criteria, it's important to apply for each position individually. Submit a cover letter with the other required materials (i.e., a resume and a copy of the official certification) that directly addresses the desired skills listed for each job lead.

If no prerequisites are listed, you should list the skills and areas of expertise that are most likely to impress employers. According to career expert Alison Doyle, these are just some of the medical assisting skills most often required among CMA job applicants.

  • Administering medications and injections
  • Phlebotomy (taking blood)
  • Maintaining medical equipment and control standards
  • Securing blood and urine samples
  • Entering data for medical tests
  • Working with patients' insurance companies
  • Recording medical histories
  • Performing CPR
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Answering telephones and handling correspondence
  • Explaining procedures and triaging patients

Regardless of the skills listed above, job-seekers should list all skills and specializations that pertain to the medical profession. Additionally, the AAMA urges job candidates to include the following experiences and accomplishments:

  • Dates of attendance and completion for all academic programs related to the medical profession, as well as grades or transcripts, honors, and participation in on-campus organizations and clubs
  • Details about all professional experiences related to the position, including job titles, promotions, day-to-day responsibilities, and recognitions earned during previous jobs, supervised clinical work or externship as part of the certification program, and healthcare-related volunteer projects or community service
  • Language skills, particularly if the applicant is fluent in Spanish
  • Skills related to computers, such as data entry, software programs (i.e., Microsoft Office Suite), and billing/coding procedures
  • References from former instructors and employers, former or current coworkers, and colleagues within the medical community
  • Membership in a professional organization that serves medical assistants, such as the AAMA

Step #3: Prepare for Interviews

What is a medical assistant's job search like? In addition to traditional job applications, prospective medical assistants are encouraged to engage in networking activities in order to boost their chances of landing a job. By attending seminars, conventions, and other CMA gatherings, candidates can introduce themselves to employers and prominent figures in the medical community, ask targeted questions about job openings, and demonstrate they are qualified to work as MAs. These meet-and-greets are not as crucial as an actual interview, but they offer a chance for job-seekers to learn more about the industry and impress leaders in the field.

When you do secure an interview opportunity, the next step is to research the potential new employer. The patient load of the establishment, the services offered, specializations the facility is known for, and other variables will help you learn more about the institution ― and help you prepare for an upcoming in-person meeting.

Prior to the interview, review the job description and make a list of the requisite skills included in the announcement. During the face-to-face session, be sure to mention all of your skills, qualifications, and experiences that pertain to the position.

In the days leading up to the scheduled meeting, find a friend or family member who can help you stage a 'mock interview', during which you can rehearse all of the statements and questions you wish to pose when the real interview takes place. Be sure to create a list of questions that will likely come up during the interview, and then form cohesive, informative answers.

Get plenty of sleep the night before the interview, and eat a substantive (but not overly filling) meal that morning. Arrive at the interview site a few minutes early, and make sure all paperwork and other important materials are in order before being called in. During the interview, the AAMA cautions candidates against discussing pay at length. Instead, focus on the skills, experience, and work ethic you will bring to the employer.

VII. Medical Ethics in Practice

In medicine, a body of guidelines rooted in the Hippocratic Oath serves as the foundation for a code of ethics. Because care providers often make difficult clinical decisions quickly, it is critical for physicians, nurses and medical assistants to follow the code of ethics as set forth by their professional boards of licensing. Professional conduct that disregards these standards is considered unethical and can result in suspension.

What are Medical Ethics?

The American Medical Association (AMA) was established in 1847 and was the first professional organization of its kind. One of the earliest tasks undertaken by its members was the development of professional standards for education, training and conduct. Its Code of Medical Ethics, a living document that undergoes regular revision, remains the most comprehensive authority on ethical practices in healthcare today.

The AMA Code of Ethics

The Code of Ethics is composed of guidelines designed for optimum patient benefit. Physicians are expected to exercise conduct that honors the professional's responsibility to patients, society, colleagues and self. The guidelines are not enforceable in court, but instead are a collection of professional expectations of an honorable medical practitioner. Set forth by the AMA as the Principles of Medical Ethics, these guidelines are as follows:

  1. A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights.
  2. A physician shall uphold the standards of professionalism, be honest in all professional interactions, and strive to report physicians deficient in character or competence, or engaging in fraud or deception, to appropriate entities.
  3. A physician shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient.
  4. A physician shall respect the rights of patients, colleagues, and other health professionals, and shall safeguard patient confidences and privacy within the constraints of the law.
  5. A physician shall continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public, obtain consultation, and use the talents of other health professionals when indicated.
  6. A physician shall, in the provision of appropriate patient care, except in emergencies, be free to choose whom to serve, with whom to associate, and the environment in which to provide medical care.
  7. A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health.
  8. A physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount.
  9. A physician shall support access to medical care for all people.

The AAMA Code of Ethics

The AMA code of ethics is the universal standard for U.S. physicians, but medical assistants must take their own oath in order to join the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). The AAMA maintains this living code of ethics document in order to help medical assistants best evolve with the changing landscape of healthcare.

The AAMA Creed states "I am true to the ethics of my profession." As such, the document sets forth the highest principles considered to universally apply across different types of medical assisting. You'll find that the core values of the AAMA document are very similar to the AMA's. When it comes down to ethical medical practice, the values of any professional providing medical services are the same:

Members of AAMA dedicated to the conscientious pursuit of their profession, and thus desiring to merit the high regard of the entire medical profession and the respect of the general public which they serve, do pledge themselves to strive always to:

  • Render service with full respect for the dignity of humanity.
  • Respect confidential information obtained through employment unless legally authorized or required by responsible performance of duty to divulge such information.
  • Uphold the honor and high principles of the profession and accept its disciplines.
  • Seek to continually improve the knowledge and skills of medical assistants for the benefit of patients and professional colleagues.
  • Participate in additional service activities aimed toward improving the health and well-being of the community.

Additional Medical Codes of Ethics

Numerous other professional organizations catering to healthcare workers also promote ethical behavior in the workplace by publishing standards of behavior. Among them are:

Established standards in medical ethics can help working professionals manage any number of thorny issues. For instance, patients are vulnerable by definition, and this can create an imbalance of power in the physician-patient relationship. Advances in medical science continually pose ethical questions, such as the morality of stem cell research. See our complete guide to medical ethics for more information.