A medical assistant is an allied health that supports the work of physicians and other health professionals, usually in a clinic setting. Medical assistants can become certified through an accredited program usually offered through a junior or community college. They perform routine tasks and procedures such as measuring patients' vital signs, administering medications and injections, recording information in medical recordkeeping systems, preparing and handling medical instruments and supplies, and collecting and preparing specimens of bodily fluids and tissues for laboratory testing.
The term "medical assistant" may have legal status in jurisdictions where they can be certified or registered, whereas elsewhere they may be a loosely defined group (covering related occupational titles such as ‘medical office assistant’, ‘clinical assistant’, 'assistant medical officer', or ‘ophthalmic assistant’). The occupation should not be confused with physician assistants, who are licensed professionals trained to practice medicine and surgical procedures in collaboration with a physician.
In military settings, occupations that provide primary medical care may go under similar titles, while other occupations may have different titles with similar responsibilities, such as Medical Assistant in the U.K. Royal Navy or Hospital Corpsman in the U.S. Navy.
Medical assistants perform routine clinical and administrative duties under the direct supervision of a physician or other health care professional. 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 book keeping. Duties vary according to laws of the jurisdiction and may include taking medical histories and recording vital signs, explaining treatment procedures to patients, preparing patients for examination, and assisting during diagnostic examinations. 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, authorize drug refills as directed, telephone prescriptions to a pharmacy, draw blood, prepare patients for X-rays, take electrocardiograms, remove sutures, and change dressings. They also facilitate communication between the patient and other health care professionals.
Some jurisdictions allow medical assistants to perform more advanced procedures, such as giving injections or taking X-rays, after passing a test or taking a course.
According to the International Standard Classification of Occupations, medical assistants normally require formal training in health services provision for competent performance in their jobs. Formal education usually occurs in post secondary institutions such as vocational schools, technical institutes, community colleges, proprietary colleges, online educational programs or junior colleges. Medical assistant training programs most commonly lead to a certificate or a diploma, which take around one year to complete, or an associate's degree, which takes around two years. Study topics include medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and programs may include a clinical internship wherein the student works as a medical assistant in a medical clinic.
In Canada, medical assistants typically complete an educational program that prepares them to perform special assisting and secretarial duties for physicians, dentists, nurses, health care facilities, and other health service providers. Instructional programs include courses in business and medical communications, medical terminology, principles of health care operations, public relations and interpersonal communications, software applications, record-keeping and filing systems, scheduling and meeting planning, policies and regulations, and professional standards and ethics.
Medical assistant job responsibilities vary depending on the nature and size of the health care facility where the individual works, but typically involve multiple administrative duties such as scheduling appointments, handling private medical documents, and assisting patients with the admissions process.
In Malaysia, Medical Assistants are known as Assistant Medical Officers (AMO). They complete a three and half year Diploma in Medical Assistant (DMA) undergraduate program recognized by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency. They work independently or with limited supervision of a physician to provide healthcare services to largely underserved populations. The occupation is more similar to that of clinical officers in Tanzania and elsewhere.
In the United States, medical assistants have traditionally held jobs almost exclusively in ambulatory care centers, urgent care facilities, and clinics, but this is now changing. Medical assistants now find employment in both private and public hospitals, inpatient and outpatient facilities, as well as assisted living facilities. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job prospects for medical assistants are excellent since medical assisting is predicted to be one of the nation's fastest growing occupations through 2018.
Education and training
The New America Foundation has criticized medical assistant programs, particularly those run by profit-making schools like Kaplan. Many graduates of the school can't find full-time work, or can't find work at all, can't make enough to pay their loans, and go into default. According to the Department of Labor, median annual salary for medical assistants in 2011 was $29,100, but students with medical-assistant certificates typically earned less than $20,000. In some programs, graduates earned less than $15,080, the minimum wage, which means they were working part-time. For example, Drake College of Business, Elizabeth, NJ, charges $18,000, but 31% of graduates defaulted on loans. A few public community colleges have successful programs where graduates make more than $25,000 a year.
In the U.S., an institution's medical assisting program may be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) if its graduates plan to become certified or registered. Accreditation is a requirement of certification agencies such as the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), the American Medical Technologists (AMT) and the National Health Career Association (NHA). Currently there are in excess of 600 CAAHEP accredited programs in can than 500 institutions, and more than 200 accredited by ABHES. Accreditation by CAAHEP, ABHES or other accreditation associations requires that the institution's medical assisting program meets specific educational standards and provides sufficient classroom, lecture, and laboratory time.
Professional certification is a way to measure competency of a medical assistant at an entry-level job. Certification for medical assistants is voluntary and optional, though encouraged by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) and a number of other certification bodies. Employers increasingly prefer or even require that the medical assistants they hire be certified.
In the United States, different organizations certify medical assistants. For one, the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) was founded in 1956. Certification may be achieved by taking the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination offered by the AAMA Certifying Board in consultation with the National Board of Medical Examiners, which also administers many national exams for physicians. The CMA (AAMA) exam is offered throughout the year at computer-based testing centers across the country. Only individuals who have successfully completed a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited medical assisting program are eligible for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination. Those who successfully complete the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination earn the CMA (AAMA) credential, a title which then follows postnominally. A CMA (AAMA) must re-certify every 60 months by continuing education or re-examination in order to maintain certification.
Other credential options include becoming a Registered Medical Assistant (RMA). Credentialing is voluntary. The American Medical Technologists (AMT) agency is responsible for certifying MAs who choose this course. The AMT first began offering this certification in 1972. AMT has its own conventions and committees, bylaws, state chapters, officers, registrations, and re validation examinations. To become eligible to hold the title of RMA, a student must either pass a medical assisting curriculum at a school that accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), or possess a minimum of 5 years experience.
The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) is an independent credentialing organization that has administered more than 400,000 certification exams across the United States since 1989. Its National Certified Medical Assistant certification program has earned accreditation by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Candidates who meet all medical assistant eligibility requirements and pass the NCCT national certification examination earn the credential NCMA(NCCT). NCCT accepts candidates from approved medical assistant programs in colleges/universities and provides additional experiential-based qualifying routes. Once certified, the NCMA(NCCT) must complete 14 clock hours of continuing education annually to maintain the credential. NCMA Handbook The NCCT also certifies medical office assistants, ECG technicians, phlebotomists, patient care technicians, insurance and coding specialists, and surgical technologists.
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- The general increase in demand will require more MA work.
- Work is shifting from venues that use few MAs (e.g., emergency rooms) to doctor’s offices, where MAs are prevalent.
- Work is moving from higher-paid, higher-credentialed practitioners to lower-level, lower cost practitioners, including MAs.
- Many wellness programs can use lower-skilled workers, including MAs.
- Electronic record requirements will increase demand for MAs with strong informatics skills.
- Regulation of MA work is relatively loose and may be further relaxed.
- In our research, several other possibilities for MAs were suggested:
- As sicker patients are released to their homes, rehab facilities, and nursing homes, home health workers and LPNs may be replaced by MAs (who have more training).
- New roles are emerging for which MAs may be qualified, including health coaches, health communicators, and patient care coordinators.
- There will be significant pressure to improve all MA skills, including professionalism, clinical knowledge, and informatics.
- Special training in geriatrics or obesity may be a differentiator.
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- There are over 570,000 MAs working in the U.S.
- Employer demand is growing.
- Employment increased an average of 3% annually for the past four years.
- Job postings for MAs have grown 11% annually since 2011.
- This faster-than-average employment growth is likely to continue.
- BLS forecasts 2.6% annual growth for the next 10 years, much faster than average.
- As discussed separately, health care trends should increase demand for MAs.
- Starting wages for MAs are generally modest.
- Starting wages range from $21,000 to $25,000.
- Median wages range from $29,000 to $30,000.
- Wages tend to be higher in urban areas with higher costs of living.
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