Like most other professionals working in the healthcare industry, medical assistants (MAs) earn official certifications that enable them to obtain paid positions and perform the regular duties of their job. In order to become properly certified in their state of residence, many medical assistants must pass the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) exam offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
Although most states do not require their medical assistants to earn national certification, many hospitals, physician’s offices, and other medical facilities throughout the country do. The CMA credential will significantly improve a candidate’s standing in the job market and more effectively prepare him or her for the demanding career ahead. By earning a CMA designation, medical assistants have demonstrated competency in the three core areas of healthcare: medical treatment, clinical skills, and administrative responsibility.
I. How Testing Works
The certified medical assistant exam is computer-based and consists of 200 questions and is currently offered at Prometric testing centers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Specific content found on the exam will change slightly each year, but the core subject matter largely remains the same. Test-takers will encounter questions that cover everything from psychology and diagnostic testing to office management and information technology; the test is divided into three main categories: general, administrative, and clinical. Prior to the commencement of the exam, a brief, optional tutorial will demonstrate how to properly use the software. Once the tutorial has concluded, the test will begin. The exam is divided into four segments, with a maximum of 40 minutes allotted to each segment and an optional break between segments. Students must take no longer than 195 minutes (three hours and 15 minutes) to complete all four segments of the exam. Exam-takers are awarded points for each correct answer, although the value will vary between questions and segments. Currently, the minimum passing score is 430. First-time candidates are allowed three attempts to pass before they are deemed ineligible.
II. CMA Test Eligibility
Aspiring medical assistants who wish to sit for the CMA test must ensure they are eligible to do so. As of 2017, candidates must qualify via one of three eligibility categories:
- Completing student or recent graduate of a medical assistant program. Student should have graduated or will soon graduate from a medical assistant program accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Students may not sit for the exam more than 30 days prior to their program's completion. Recent graduates must sit the exam within 12 months of graduating.
- Non-recent graduates of an accredited medical assistant program. Non-recent graduates of a CAAHEB- or ABHES-accredited medical assisting program are now eligible to apply for the exam.
- Medical assistants seeking recertification. These candidates must have previously passed the exam within the timeframe allotted to students and graduates.
Prospective exam-takers will not be eligible under the following circumstances (although a waiver may be given to individuals under certain circumstances):
- The candidate did not pass the exam after three attempts (after January 2010).
- The candidate has been found guilty of or pled guilty to a felony.
- The candidate has had "a professional license, registration, or certification denied, revoked, suspended, or subjected to probationary conditions by a regulatory authority or certification board."
III. Exam Costs and Registration
The fee schedule for the CMA exam is fairly straightforward. Members of the AAMA or students/graduates of CAAHEP or ABHES programs will be charged $125 for each attempt, while non-members must pay $250 to sit for the exam. Previously certified MAs whose credential has expired must pay a $50 reactivation fee, as well. All charges are nonrefundable and nontransferable; exam-takers may pay with money order, credit or debit cards, cashier's check, certified check, or institution check (no personal checks are allowed at this time). The first step for medical assistant certification exam-takers is to submit an application. Once this application has been received, the individual will be given a 90-day testing period in which he or she must sit for the exam; this timeframe is determined by the preferred testing period start date noted by the candidate on his or her application.
Since the CMA test is exclusively offered at Prometric testing centers (which are open five to six days a week nationwide), candidates can essentially take the exam any time, provided it falls within the 12- or 60-month time limit they have been allotted. According to the AAMA, applicants should refer to the the following timetable when choosing their testing period:
Preferred testing period start dateApplication deadlineMail application by...
|Start Date||Application Deadline||Mail Application By...|
|January||October 1 of prior year||September 20 of prior year|
|February||November 1 of prior year||October 20 of prior year|
|March||December 1 of prior year||November 20 of prior year|
|April||January 1 of same year||December 20 of prior year|
|May||February 1 of same year||January 20 of same year|
|June||March 1 of same year||February 20 of same year|
|July||April 1 of same year||March 20 of same year|
|August||May 1 of same year||April 20 of same year|
|September||June 1 of same year||May 20 of same year|
|October||July 1 of same year||June 20 of same year|
|November||August 1 of same year||July 20 of same year|
|December||September 1 of same year||August 20 of same year|
IV. Medical Assistant Certification Exam Format
The exam contains a total of 200 multiple-choice questions, 180 of which count toward the final score and 20 of which are pretested. Exam content is divided into three general categories: General, Administrative, and Clinical. These three categories are further segmented into 22 different subsections, ordered A through V. The breakdown guide below is taken from CMA (AAMA) Certification/Recertification Examination Content Outline (accessed February 2017). A look at this overview will reveal that the bulk of the exam consists of questions pertaining to medical and clinical care.
Part I ― General (A-G): This category consists of a total 50 questions that collectively account for 28% of the final score.
- Understanding human behavior
- Human growth and development
- Death and dying stages
- Therapeutic/adaptive responses to diverse populations
- Nonverbal communication
- Communication cycle
- Collection of data
- Telephone techniques
- Interpersonal skills
- Professional behavior
- Performing as a team member
- Medical Law/Regulatory Guidelines
- Advance directives
- Uniform anatomical gift act
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Clinical Laboratory Improvement (CLIA '88)
- Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA)
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act
- Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
- Medical Assistant Scope of Practice
- Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Consumer protection acts
- Public health and welfare disclosure
- Healthcare rights and responsibilities
- Mediolegal terms and doctrines
- Categories of law
- Medical Ethics
- Ethical standards
- Factors affecting ethical decisions
- Risk Management, Quality Assurance, and Safety
- Workplace accident prevention
- Safety signs, symbols, labels
- Environment safety
- Compliance reporting
- Medical Terminology
- Word parts
- Definitions/medical terminology
Part II. Administrative (H-M) This category consists of a total of 45 questions that collectively account for 25% of the final score.
- Medical Reception
- Medical record preparation
- Demographic data review
- Handling vendors/business associates
- Reception room environment
- Practice information packet
- Patient Navigator/Advocate
- Resource information
- Medical Business Practices
- Written communication
- Business equipment
- Office supply inventory
- Electronic applications
- Establish Patient Medical Record
- Recognize and interpret data
- Charting systems
- Scheduling Appointments
- Scheduling guidelines
- Appointment protocols
- Practice Finances
- Financial terminology
- Financial procedures
- Diagnostic and procedural coding applications
- Third-party payers/insurance
Part III. Clinical (N-V): This category consists of a total 85 questions that collectively account for 47% of the final score.
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Body as a whole
- Body systems including normal structure, function, and interrelationships across the life span
- Pathophysiology and diseases of body systems
- Infection Control
- Infectious agents
- Modes of transportation
- Infection cycle/chain of infection
- Body's natural barriers
- Medical asepsis
- Surgical asepsis
- Standard precautions/blood-borne pathogen standards
- Biohazard disposal/regulated waste
- Patient Intake and Documentation of Care
- Medical record documentation
- Patient Preparation and Assisting the Provider
- Vital signs/anthropometrics
- Recognize and report age-specific normal and abnormal vital signs
- Patient education/health coach
- Wellness/preventive care
- Basic principles
- Special dietary needs
- Eating disorders
- Collecting and Processing Specimens
- Methods of collection
- Prepare, process and examine specimens
- Laboratory quality control/quality assurance
- Laboratory panels and performing selected tests
- Diagnostic Testing
- Cardiovascular tests
- Audiometric/hearing tests
- Allergy tests
- Respiratory tests
- Distinguish between normal/abnormal laboratory and diagnostic test results
- Preparing and administering oral and parenteral medications
- Medication record-keeping
- Emergency Management/Basic First Aid
- Assessment and screening
- Identification and response to emergencies
- Office emergency readiness
It should be noted that specific questions and segments will change on an annual basis, but the medical assistant certification exam will retain the same core concepts year-over-year. Please review this PDF for a more detailed content outline.
V. Scores and Confirmations
A "passing" or "failing" grade will be given to each medical assistant certification exam-taker as soon as the exam has concluded. A detailed score report will be mailed to each candidate within 10 weeks; those who have registered with the AAMA may check for updates by logging in and viewing the My Certification Status page. Those who have not received their reports within three months of sitting for the CMA test are urged to contact the AAMA Certification Department. Those who earn a passing score will be mailed an official certification and wallet-sized card within nine weeks of the exam. Since CMA certification is a matter of public record, anyone can verify the CMA status of anyone who has passed the exam ― or at least claimed to. Recertification of this credential is required every 60 months (five years). Since the CMA certification is a nationwide credential, medical assistants will not be required to retake the exam if they move to a different state.
VI. Recertification Requirements
According to a rule that became effective on Jan. 1, 2010, CMA certification status is valid for 60 months after the final day of the month during which the previous certification was earned. For instance, if someone passed her first CMA exam on March 15, 2011, then her credential will be valid until March 31, 2016. Medical assistants may not claim CMA status if their certification has expired.
There are currently two ways to renew CMA certification. Certified medical assistants can either become recertified through continuing education, or they can retake the CMA exam. Note that retaking the exam is the only option for those who let their certification expire.
Option 1: Retake the CMA Exam
Those who wish to recertify their CMA by sitting for the exam must undergo a nearly identical process as someone seeking certification for the first time. However, there is one key difference: when applying to the AAMA for a testing date, the candidate must submit a copy of her CMA certification along with the completed application and exam fee. AAMA members pay $125 to sit for the exam, while non-members are charged $250. Additionally, recertification seekers who have allowed their CMA status to expire before their testing date must pay a reactivation fee of $50. The exam is identical for first-time takers and previous certification earners.
See section IV of this guide for a detailed outline of the certified medical assistant test.
Historically, "provider-level CPR" certification was required for those who wished to recertify their CMA status. As of July 2013, this requirement is no longer in place. However, most employers who hire medical assistants will require some level of CPR/first aid certification.
Option 2: Complete Continuing Education Credits
This option is only available to CMAs with valid certification, and will not be offered to those who have allowed their status to lapse. Medical assistants who wish to go this route are required to accrue "recertification points." Recertification points are awarded using the formula listed below:
- 1 continuing education unit (CEU) = 1 point
- 1.5 continuing education units = 1.5 points
- 1 continuing medical education (CME) credit = 1 point
- 1 contact hour = 1 recertification point
- 1 college credit hour (quarter or semester) = 15 recertification points
According to the most recent AAMA guidelines, a total of 60 recertification points will be required in order to renew the credential; in order to ensure the MA's continuing education is covering all the fundamental areas of their occupation, recertification seekers are required to earn:
- 10 administrative points
- 10 clinical points
- 10 general points
- 30 additional points combined in any order from these three categories
At least 30 of these 60 points must be derived from AAMA-approved continuing education units (CEUs). These CEUs can be earned by completing tests through the AAMA e-Learning Center; enrolling in AAMA self-study courses; attending the annual AAMA national conference; or participating in workshops, seminars, and other educational programs through a local or state AAMA chapter.
Recertification seekers may also earn up to 30 points through non-AAMA CEUs, but they must first determine if the alternative educational program meets AAMA standards if they hope to accrue points. As a general rule, the AAMA will accept outside CEUs if the "subject matter is relevant" to the medical assisting profession. However, individuals who wish to earn points from these sources should refer to three sets of guidelines published by the AAMA: the CMA (AAMA) Certification/Recertification Examination Content Outline; the AAMA 2007-2008 Occupational Analysis of the CMA (AAMA); and the Advanced Practice of Medical Assisting.
If a CMA earns 60 recertification points prior to her credential's expiration date, she may earn "early recertification"; the new certification will go into effect on the last day of the month in which she renews her status. Recertification through continuing education costs $65 for AAMA members and $130 for non-members. These prices are in addition to any costs incurred from enrolling in and completing CEU courses or programs. Please note that recertification points will not "roll over." Once recertification has been successfully obtained, the CMA must earn another 60 points within the next five years.
VII. Online Exam Prep and Review
Like any major test, the medical assistant certification exam requires thorough preparation in order to earn a passing score. Prospective medical assistants must carefully review the clinical, administrative, and general aspects of their profession, while recertification seekers must revisit the books, journals, and other resources that enabled them to pass their exam the first time. The AAMA offers a detailed exam outline, as well as two practice tests for medical terminology and anatomy/physiology. Since these two topics tend to require the most memorization, test-takers are urged to complete these practice tests and review the answer key prior to sitting for the official CMA exam. In addition to these AAMA materials, CMA certification seekers can effectively prepare for the exam using the following resources:
- CMA Exam Preparation 2015-2016: Study Guide & Review Book for the Certified Medical Assistant Exam: An updated edition of one of the most comprehensive guides for CMA test-takers.
- The Kaplan Medical Assistant Exam Review: Covers "everything you need to pass the CMA and RMA exams".
- NCCT Exam Flashcard Study System: This set of flashcards covers all of the fundamental subject areas found on the CMA exam and is available for $39.99
- Medical Abbreviations & Acronyms: A pamphlet of the most commonly used medical abbreviations and acronyms.
- Medical Terminology: A six-page chart covering medical terminology and its use.
- CMA Study Guide App: This iPhone app contains 400 different practice questions that cover every section of the CMA exam.
- Quizlet: This site features a set of medical terminology flashcards designed to assist individuals who are about to take the CMA exam.
VIII. Additional Medical Assistant Certification Options
While it should be noted that the AAMA's CMA is considered the most prestigious medical assistant certification, there are other alternatives. The following three certifications are also available to prospective MAs:
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA): Certification-seekers may be drawn to the low cost ($155 per exam) and technical emphasis of the CCMA credential, offered through the National Healthcare Association. The exam covers skills like vital sign measurements, medical instrument sterilization, injection and medication administration, and interpersonal effectiveness when dealing with patients and their families.In order to be eligible for the CCMA, candidates must possess at least a high school diploma or equivalent degree, and have completed either a medical assistant training program or at least one year of professional employment in a healthcare setting. Students who wish to sign up for the exam must register for an account with the NHA; their school (which serves as the exam site) will coordinate the exam date with the NHA. Professionals, on the other hand, will sit for their computerized exam at the nearest PSI Testing Center once they have created an NHA account. Score results are available one to two days after the exam; the CCMA credential will be valid for two years before recertification is required.
- National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA): The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) offers this certification for medical assistants. The curriculum covers "medical terminology, anatomy & physiology, medical law & ethics, [and] medical office administrative procedures." The exam fee will vary between $155 to $195.
Candidates must create an online account with the NCCT and then submit an electronic application in order to sit for the exam. Candidates should call NCCT at (800) 875-4404 to locate the nearest testing center. The NCMA is available in a paper or electronic format; results from the paper exam will be available four to six weeks after the exam is taken, while the results from the electronic version will be available as soon as the exam concludes.
- Medical Assistant (RMA): This exam is offered by the American Medical Technologists (AMT). There are four eligibility routes:
- Students or recent graduates of an accredited medical assisting program who have been out of school for no more than four years
- Graduates of a formal medical assisting training program offered by the U.S. military
- A professional medical assistant who has been employed in the industry for at least five of the past seven years (proof of high school graduation or equivalent is required)
- An instructor of an accredited medical assistant program with at least five years of professional experience
The RMA exam is divided into three segments: General Medical Assisting Knowledge (41% of the exam), Administrative Medical Assisting (24%), and Clinical medical Assisting (35%). The exam costs $120 for each sitting; candidates must apply online, and then allow up to four weeks for the application to be processed. Once the application has been received and accepted, the candidate must schedule an examination time and date at the nearest Pearson VUE Testing Center. Those who receive a passing score will have valid RMA certification for three years before another exam is required.