Working as a Medical Assistant

Q&A with Shawen Potter

The best way to learn about a career as a medical assistant (MA) is to talk with someone who has spent years in the field. What was their educational path like? What kind of environments do they prefer working in? How have their responsibilities evolved since they first started? Once you know what makes the MA profession worthwhile for someone else, it’s easier to imagine the possibilities it holds for you.

MedicalAssistantCertification.org’s resident expert Shawen Potter answers our questions about her experiences working as a MA in Pensacola-area clinics and hospitals for over 15 years. She discusses the different providers she’s worked with, explains how administrative and clinical responsibilities tend to break down for new MAs, and shares some of her favorite memories from her career thus far.

Shawen currently works as a medical assistant for the Pensacola Florida Blue Center and the Lakeview Center’s Acute Stabilization Unit in Florida.

How did you get started as a MA? What made you want to get into the field?

I needed a career change. Previously, I had only worked part-time in retail, but my heart wasn’t in it. I decided to pursue an education and career in healthcare. The dean of the school I applied to talked me into going after a medical assistant career, because people in the position are cross-trained in many areas of treatment. I worked retail while I was going to school, and I didn’t work in the medical field until I did my externship, which totals to about 180 hours. When I was eventually hired as a medical assistant, it was my first full-time job. I’ve now been a medical assistant for 15 years.

When earning your diploma, did you end up pursuing any particular specialization? Did you pursue specific types of MA positions?

During school, I didn’t really have time to specialize in a single area. My yearlong program was very busy; we typically studied three different subjects in a single week. Still, we were able to pick the areas we wanted to do our externships in. I chose OB/GYN and dermatology. Entering the profession with experience in these specializations helped me land related positions after graduation.

Where have you worked as a MA? Have you held other jobs in the healthcare industry?

I’ve worked in hospitals, doctors’ offices and military facilities. I’ve only ever held a position as a MA, and I’ve worked across a number of different departments: OB/GYN, Internal, Mental Health/Detox and Family.

What is your schedule like? Do your duties change depending on the day? How much of your work is administrative and how much is clinical?

Yes. I work in the clinic on Mondays and Fridays. I work the front office on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and I’m off on Thursdays.When I work front office, it’s mostly administrative work. Some MAs are trained for both front and back and some strictly work one area. My current job is my first time doing both.

Usually my tasks on clinical days don’t differ too much, but the job requires a good deal of multitasking. When I work in the clinic, I take and record vitals, pulse, temperature, height and weight. I interview patients for medication verification, chief symptoms and medical histories. I put all of this on the chart and then transfer it to our electronic medical records (EMR). Once everything is in the computer, I give the chart to the provider and relay what’s going on with the patient. In the clinical area, there’s also usually some downtime where you you can handle lab paper, call in prescriptions or call back patients.

How many people do you work with? Do you have one supervisor? Are you on a team?

The clinic I work in is very small ― it’s three MAs and three providers total. Each MA is assigned to a single provider, and for the most part, we exclusively work in these pairs. My provider, Leslie Rice NP, works on Mondays and Fridays. This is why I work the rest of the week in the front office.

Larger clinics often divide the MA staff up into teams. When I worked in internal medicine, I was part of a team of MAs that supported four doctors. While we were each paired with a single primary doctor, our schedules were split assisting these four providers.

Depending on their patients or service styles, you may need to adapt the way you take your notes or prioritize your work based on your provider. It’s best if you review your schedule a day in advance in order to prep, clean and restock your rooms accordingly.

How do your current duties compare with what you expected when you first decided to become a MA? What’s surprised you the most?

I really didn’t know what to expect when I first decided to become a MA. As I mentioned, I chose to complete part of my externship in an OB/GYN department. This was definitely my most positive early experience being a MA. I worked under a great doctor that loved to teach and I worked alongside a great staff. We did our jobs well, learned a lot and had fun. After so many years working in retail, I was really grateful to work in such a dynamic and stimulating atmosphere.

What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned on the job as a MA?

You never know how your interaction with a patient might impact their life. I’ve learned to always have my best face on no matter how I feel. People pick up on your facial expressions and respond to you based on them.

Can you elaborate? What do you do to make a patient relax and trust you?

Well, for example, there was this very sweet couple, both patients, that used to come in together all the time, and they liked to talk a lot. One time I called them back to be seen by the doctor, and I just wasn’t feeling great ― not in a good mood at all; not smiling; not especially happy to see them; and not too conversational. The wife asked me, “Are you okay? You just don’t seem like yourself today.” I realized she was reading my face, picking up on my mood. That’s when I decided that no matter how I’m feeling, I always put my “best face on” when I’m with a patient. Patients like when they see the same genial people all the time. We get to know them and their history, and they can relax while we do our work.

What does professionalism look like for MAs? What standards are you held to that are unique to your position or to the health industry?

I always look presentable: scrubs pressed, clean shoes, hair looking good, naturally done nails (at a short length) and not too much makeup. Each facility has its own protocol. If they have a problem with something you wear as far as piercings or tattoos are concerned, they will let you know upfront.

In what settings have you worked in as a MA? How do MA roles differ between public hospitals, specialized clinics or private practices?

I have worked in all three settings. When you work in a private practice, you are confined to one location. In hospitals and clinics you can explore your surroundings; you get to move about. Of course, no two providers work the same way. The larger the practice, the greater the chances you’ll work with multiple providers. When I worked in internal medicine, and my doctor had to work the wards, I got to work with either the pulmonologist or gastroenterologist. This helped broaden my skills.

What does job mobility look like for MAs? Do you need to pursue additional education in order to get a more senior job?

The only drawback I see in being a MA is a lack of professional mobility. Without additional licensure, I can’t work in a more advanced position. I can apply for positions under other providers that might pay slightly more, but for now I am only legally qualified to work as a MA.

Are there other healthcare careers you’re interested in and qualified for? Do you think you’ll pursue them?

If I ended up pursuing licensure, I could try for any LPN position. MAs and LPNs share many of the same responsibilities, so it’s a sensible next step in terms of advancement. Some states let you challenge the board to become one. It might be good to wait until you’ve worked in the field for a while. The more experience you have under your belt, the better your chances of qualifying for LPN certification.

Once I’ve learned something, I’m ready to learn something else. I haven’t found that “one thing” just yet. My next goal is to have my own office to run as an office manager. If an LPN title helps me get there, I’ll definitely consider appealing to the my state board for the qualification.

Are you able to balance work time, personal time and family time? Any advice on how to do so?

It’s all about how you prioritize. I work 12 hour days, and it can be overwhelming at times. My son is a senior in high school. He has football practice after school, and there are times when he doesn’t have a ride home and has to wait till I get off work. I have one day off during the week and I spend it running errands or finishing up any work I have left for my continuing education courses. Every other weekend, I work a half day on Saturday. So my weekends are pretty much my time to rest and enjoy my family. On Sundays I also like to have a girls’ day out. When you’re as busy as I am, you need some time to regroup. It keeps you sane.

Is there anything you would have done differently while working to become a MA?

No, I love what I do. Really, the only thing I wish I’d done differently is go to school sooner than I did. I spent a lot of time undecided about what I wanted to do, but my indecision just ate into the time I could’ve spent in the field I love.

What advice do you have for people interested in launching a career in medical assisting?

The jobs are out there. Get your foot in the door and get some experience under your belt. Networking helps ― make a point of befriending people who are already established in the healthcare field. Don’t be afraid to use online search engines, like Indeed, Monster, Careerbuilder and Simply Hired. Make a point of having an up-to-date resume, cover letter and list of references.