Are you someone who wants something more out of your career than just a living?  Do you want a job that gives you the opportunity to help other people every day?  Perhaps you once wanted to be doctor, but were unsuited or unable to afford the years of expensive and difficult education required.  For many people, the increasing demand for medical support personnel like medical assistants may provide the best opportunity for a career that is not only economically viable but also meaningful and service-based.

Depending on their specialties, expertise, and the medical field in which they work, medical assistants complete a variety of administrative and clinical tasks in a variety of healthcare settings.

As healthcare administrators, medical assistants answer phones, schedule appointments, greet patients, and deal with medical paperwork – the meticulous, day-to-day business of healthcare.

Clinically, they are called upon to assist the medical practitioners in their examination and treatment of patients:  under the supervision of a physician, they may be asked to administer shots (72% of medical assistants surveyed by the American Association of Medical Assistants, take medical histories and vital signs (87%), draw blood (47%), collect and analyze lab samples (51%), and take EKGs (53%), X-rays (12%), and other diagnostic tests (47%). Of course, these tasks are just a sampling of the duties performed by medical assistants.

Though they perform some similar tasks, medical assistants are different than PHYSICIAN ASSISTANTS, who have completed additional medical training and are given more clinical responsibilities.

Medical Assisting Career Opportunities

Related Careers: MEDICAL ASSISTANT and HOME HEALTH AIDE

Medical assistants, including both administrative and clinical assistants, are one of the United States’ fastest growing professions:  the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the field of medical assisting to grow by 38% from 2008 to 2018, adding 163,900 new positions.  Compare that to the 8.2% expected expansion of the civilian workforce as a whole over the same time period!

Projected Growth Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Occupational Information Network, or O*NET, a project of the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, predicts that there will be a need for 217,800 new medical assistants from 2008 to 2018.  This figure includes the occupation’s formidable growth rate, and existing positions vacated by retirement, career changes, and early termination.

Medical Assistant Earnings

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, experience, ability, and job location affect the salary of a medical assistant.   The median annual wages of a medical assistant in 2008 were $28,300.  The middle 50% made between $23,700 and $33,050.  The top 10% of the field made more than $39,570; while the bottom 10% of the field made less than $20,600.

Annual Earnings Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Annual Earnings

Medical Assisting Educational Benefits

While a formal, post-secondary education in medical assisting is not strictly required, it is generally preferred.  Completion of an accredited program in medical assisting and achievement of a 3rd party certification will ensure the student access to the best opportunities and wages in the field.

According to The Occupational Information Network, a government career-planning resource, 34% of medical assistants have a high school diploma or less, 54% have some college (post-secondary diploma or associate’s degree), and 12% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Educational Achievement Source: Occupational Information Network

Medical assisting programs generally take one to two years to complete, and award either a diploma or associate’s level degree.  Generally, completion of a more thorough two-year A.A.S. (Associate of Applied Sciences) program is more desirable, at least in the long run:  it may make it easier to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree down the road.  In the short run, an A.A.S.- level medical assistant may have a slight competitive advantage in the job market.

Regardless of the type and degree level earned, students of medical assisting will take courses in human anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology, along with administrative support courses in medical transcription, record keeping, insurance processing, and accounting.  Due to the enormous demand for medical support personnel of all types, prospective medical assistants with training in both the clinical and administrative elements of the profession will be in exceptionally high demand.

All medical assisting students will be instructed in lab and clinical procedures and first aid, in addition to the relevant technological and clinical skills required by their specialization.

Prospective students can choose a general medical assisting path, or choose to specialize.  Those that choose to specialize will be more competitive for positions within their area of study than those with a general medical assisting education, and may start with better pay.  Those who choose the more general education path will have a much broader range of positions for which they are qualified.  For example, a job-seeker with an optometric specialization will be a very strong candidate for an opening at an optometrist’s office, but not for an opening at a podiatrist’s office.  A candidate with a generalized medical assisting education would likely be a solid candidate for both positions but a stand-out for neither.

Specializations are offered in a range of areas: if there is a medical specialization for the doctor, there is likely one for his or her assistants.  This means that if there is a specific type of medicine in which you know you’d like to assist, you should be able to find the proper specialization.  Here are a few of the most common:

Ophthalmic and optometric assistants learn to work with ophthalmologists and dispensing optometrists, respectively, to provide eye care and vision services.

Podiatric assistants study to work in the offices of podiatrists, providing patients with foot care.  Dermatological assistants study skin care, and are qualified to assist dermatologists.

Geriatric and pediatric assistants are trained in treatments that are common in caring for the old or the young.  They are taught the basics of how to effectively communicate, relate, and empathize with the special circumstances and needs of either group.  For example, a geriatric assistant may learn how best to calm an aging patient with Alzheimer’s, while a pediatric assistant may learn how to convince a very young child that a necessary shot won’t hurt too badly.

Medical Assisting Programs Online

Degrees Possible: Diploma and Associate’s Degrees

There are a growing number of medical assisting programs offered online through accredited trade schools and colleges.  The best of these programs will provide a rigorous, high-level education comparable to a medical assisting degree offered at a local school or college, but in a more flexible format that may be better suited to working students.

As with any serious educational decision, do your research when picking an online medical assisting program:  is the school accredited?  Will credits transfer?  What is the school’s job placement rate?  What are people saying about this school in general and this program specifically?  You’ll find the answers to many of these questions within the University Bound Network of Web sites, but don’t be afraid to ask your admissions counselor pointed questions.

Medical Assisting Skills and Abilities

Medical assistants must be courteous in dealing with the public and conscientious in their tasks and responsibilities.  They should be strong communicators, as they must interact daily with patients, the public, and the medical practitioners for whom they work.  Many medical assistants draw blood and dress wounds, so a strong stomach is generally a great benefit.

Medical assistants must be able to complete a wide range of clinical procedures.  Knowledge of these can be learned on the job, but formal education is a definite plus.

Medical Assisting Advancement and Qualification

Medical assistants generally need to go back to school to qualify for significant clinical advancement.  Their combination of education and experience makes them a strong candidate, though, for programs like physician assistant training, which requires the student to already have healthcare experience and two years of post-secondary education.

When their educational program is complete, medical assisting graduates are qualified to seek employment as a generalized or specialized MEDICAL ASSISTANT or a HOME HEALTH AIDE.

Additional Information

The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) maintains a Web site at http://www.aama-ntl.org.