Medical assistant is an allied health occupation who perform administrative and/or clinical tasks to support the work of physicians and other health professionals. They perform routine tasks and procedures such as measuring patients' vital signs, administering medications and injections, recording information in medical records-keeping 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 under the supervision of 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, applicable 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.
In some states, (e.g., Utah), there is little if any distinction between a surgeon's assistant and a medical assistant. Both may assist the physician or surgeon in any capacity that the supervising physician deems appropriate, including directly supervised incisions, administering local anesthesia, infusing tumescent anesthesia, aspiration of hypodermic fat, ablative laser dermal resurfacing and many other cosmetic procedures.
Education and training
In the U.S., the 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 more 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 a job-entry level. 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 another organization that certifies medical assistants. The designation received after successful testing (and background check of proper education and/or years of documented experience) is a National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA). NCCT is an independent, third-party organization, that has certified over 350,000 medical professionals since 1989. The American Association of Medical Assistants grants certification, where many employers insist on certification and verifying with the AAMA prior to employment. NCCT was established as an independent certifying agency in order to avoid any allegiance to a specific organization or association. While some certifying agencies might offer automatic, lifetime certification to applicants who pass a single exam, NCCT does not. NCMA Handbook The NCCT also certifies ECG Technicians, Phlebotomy Technicians and Pharmacy Technicians.
- BLS (December 17, 2009). Medical assistants. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved on 2010-05-06.
- ISCO-08 Unit Group 3256-Medical assistants International Labour Organization, International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO-08, 2008 revision). Retrieved on 2010-02-23.
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics. How to Become a Medical Assistant. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved on 2012-11-06.
- Statistics Canada, Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP), Canada, 2000. Medical Administrative/Executive Assistant and Medical Secretary, accessed July 18, 2013.
- AAMA (March 19, 2007). The History of the AAMA. American Association of Medical Assistants. Retrieved on 2007-03-23
- Mullan F, Frehywot S. "Non-physician clinicians in 47 sub-Saharan African countries." Lancet, 2007; 370:2158–63.
- Medical Assistant Guide. Medical Assistant Certification. MedicalAssistants.net. Retrieved on 2012-11-06.
- CAAHEP (May 5, 2010). CAAHEP Accredited Program Search. Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. Retrieved on 2010-05-05.
- ABHES (May 5, 2010). Directory of Institutions and Programs. Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools. Retrieved on 2010-05-05
- TMAS. Top 50 Health Care Jobs. Retrieved on 2013-11-22.
- Balasa, Donald A. Why more employers are hiring CMAs (AAMA) American Association of Medical Assistants. Retrieved on 2010-05-06.
- Candidate Application and Handbook for the CMA (AAMA) Certification/Re certification Examination American Association of Medical Assistants. Retrieved on 2010-05-06.
- AAMA (March 19, 2007). How to Become a CMA. American Association of Medical Assistants. Retrieved on 2007-03-23
- CMA (AAMA) Certification/Re Certification Exam Eligibility. American Association of Medical Assistants. Retrieved on 2010-05-06.
- CMA (AAMA) Re certification by Continuing Education Application. American Association of Medical Assistants. Retrieved on 2010-05-06.
- AMT (March 23, 2007). Certification Requirements and Qualifications. American Medical Technologists. Retrieved on 2007-03-23
- AMT (March 23, 2007). AMT's Historical Timeline. American Medical Technologists. Retrieved on 2007-03-23
- "Popular Health Care Careers". OMAP. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
- National Certified Medical Assistant