Virtually every hospital, doctors’ office, clinic and other health facility across the U.S. has a need to hire good medical assistants. And labor statistics indicate that demand for medical assistants is growing fast, and will continue to expand more than most other job categories for years to come (in fact, the government says that this will be the third fastest-growing profession in the U.S. from now through 2014). The job description can vary, with assistants in small clinics or physician’s offices doing both record keeping and direct patient care, while those in much larger practices tend to specialize either in clinical work or medical administrative assistant duties behind the front desk.
Job Options: More Focus On Degrees
This is a job path where having the associate degree for medical assistants is much more important than it was just 10 years ago. There are really two tiers of medical assistant jobs – the lower paying ones in general practice facilities, and the higher salary jobs that exist in more specialized practices. Doctors and administrators in specialty fields have become much more picky about hiring medical assistants with degrees – the Associate of Science Degree for Medical Assistants is the best known one. They can afford to do this because there’s currently an oversupply of job applicants with only “on the job” training as medical assistants, but fewer people who have a degree. Even medical assistants who have a great deal of hands-on experience in busy specialties like Family Medicine, Podiatry and Urgent Care now complain that they can’t get the best jobs if they don’t have the Associates Degree.
An Associate of Science Degree in Medical Assisting will prepare you to take one of two national certification tests, the CMA (Certified Medical Assistant) or the RMA (Registered Medical Assistant). More below on who gives these exams and how you can take one.
Basics of the Associate of Science in Medical Assisting Degree
Medical assistants can work in the administrative side of a practice or more directly with patients. Most AS degrees in medical assisting prepare you for both clinical and administrative work, with training in patient communications, billing, processing insurance claims and scheduling appointments, as well as functions that you might perform under the supervision of a doctor or other practitioner, like taking vital signs, doing electrocardiograms, giving injections and, in some cases, even assisting in minor in-office surgical procedures.
Medical assistant schools typically require 60 credits in their AS degree programs. The training generally takes two years, though some full-time students can complete them on a more accelerated schedule. These degrees are offered by a wide variety of schools from community colleges to major universities, and there are many options to get your AS medical assistant degree either entirely or partly online. If you have long-range plans to move up in the medical professions, it’s good to be aware that some of the courses you take in a degree program of this type may be transferrable to a bachelor degree program later on, but many of them will not.
Here’s a sampling of typical courses in an AS Medical Assisting degree program, which will generally mix topics that are directly career-related with general education subjects:
- Clinical Procedures
- Medical Terminology
- Anatomy, Radiography
- Medical Office Management
- Lab Procedures
- Behavioral/Social Science
- English Composition
- American Literature
- Intro & Intermediate Algebra
- College Mathematics
- Intro & Advanced Biology
The national median salary for medical assistants in 2010 was about $28,000, with more experienced assistants earning over $40,000 per year (Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Primary care physicians (family practitioners, internists) treat a large volume of patients, but are not able to pay top dollar to their assistants. The higher paying medical assistant positions are working for doctors in allergy, dermatology, otolaryngology or other highly-compensated specialties. Private medical practices generally pay more than hospitals.
When you have completed your degree, you’ll want to get your certification as a medical assistant before you go job hunting. Here are the two most widely recognized tests for a credential:
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)
You must complete and accredited medical assistant degree program before taking this test, which is administered by the Certifying Board of the American Association of Medical Assistants. You are required to complete an approved “externship” before taking the test, which is administered at centers across the US three times each year. For information on how to apply for the test, visit AAMA’s site here. Keep in mind that you must renew this credential every five years.
Registered Medical Assistant
The RMA certification is offered by the American Medical Technologists (AMT), and it’s done via a computer test that’s done frequently throughout the US and Canada. For more information, visit AMT’s site here. After you are certified, you must show documentation to AMT every three years that you have taken continuing education credits to keep your knowledge current. Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind that once you have your associate’s degree as a medical assistant, you can always go back to college later on and complete a bachelor’s degree in just two more years that can lead you into nursing or other areas of health care.