Medical assisting has emerged as one of the hottest careers in healthcare, offering tremendous employment potential, a lucrative salary, fantastic employment benefits, and job security. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 160,000 new jobs are expected to become available to medical assistants in the US between 2012 and 2022.
The BLS also reports an average hourly wage for medical assistants of around $14 per hour, which can be substantially higher depending upon location and experience. Salaries are often accompanied by a full range of employment benefits, including vacation pay, health and dental insurance, retirement benefits, and more.
While a career in medical assisting may not be suited to everyone, if you are flexible, service oriented, and dedicated, you may find this to be an ideal career for you.
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Paths to Becoming a Medical Assistant
There are several options available if you wish to enter the medical assisting field: unofficial on-the-job training, on campus training, online training, and hybrid programs.
While it is possible to become a medical assistant with no more than a high school diploma or GED along with on-the-job-training, employers more often select applicants that have received medical assistant training and certification through a properly accredited program. As such, it is advisable to train through a program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Option 1 – On-the-Job Training and Education
Choosing to become a medical assistant through on-the-job training is the fastest way to enter the field since it allows you to begin working and earn money while learning. However, choosing this path requires a great deal of persistence because it can be difficult to find a doctor that is willing to hire an untrained applicant.
If you choose this path, here is what you need to do:
- Have a high school diploma or GED. The minimum educational requirement for medical assistants is a high school diploma or equivalency degree. If you do not already have this level of education, the first step is to take a GED prep class and to pass the examination.
- Find a doctor who will provide training. Although most employers now prefer medical assistants with a formal education, there are some who will provide on-site training. Arrange to meet with several doctors and express your passion for medical assisting and your desire to become a medical assistant. If accepted, you will receive intensive hands-on training under the direction of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.
Option 2 – Formal Training Through Accredited Programs
There are many colleges, universities, and technical schools that offer medical assistant training programs. Depending upon your preferences, you may choose to earn a certificate or diploma in as little as 9-12 months, or an associate’s degree in 18-24 months. These programs typically include classroom and laboratory training as well as an externship assignment.
You can choose from schools that offer classroom instruction on campus, online programs, or a hybrid of the two. If you want to become a Certified Medical Assistant after graduation, be sure to choose a program that is CAAHEP or ABHES accredited.
– On-Campus Training Programs –
On-campus medical assistant training programs require you to attend all classes and laboratory sessions in a traditional campus setting. These programs have set schedules and may hold classes during day, afternoon, or evening hours.
- Face to face interaction with instructors
- Opportunities to collaborate with other medical assisting students
- Highly structured learning environment
- Access to campus resources and assistance
- Lack of flexibility in scheduling
- Time and money expenditures for commuting
- Does not accommodate work and family life
– Online Training Programs –
Online programs would allow you to complete all your coursework online from the comfort of your home. This is the method of choice if you want to work a full-time job or take care of your family while getting your education.
If you want to perform clinical medical assisting duties, you will still be required to complete an externship in a clinical setting before graduation.
- Flexible scheduling
- Studies can be completed from any location
- Ability to work and care for family while getting an education
- Allows access to online resources and technology
- Lack of structure requires high student motivation and organization
- Little interpersonal interaction
- Still must schedule an externship and meet other on-site requirements
– Hybrid Training Programs –
Hybrid medical assistant training programs allow you to complete at least part of the classwork online, but would require you to complete lab work or other training on campus. This allows you more flexibility than an on-campus program and can reduce the need to commute.
- Combines flexibility and interaction with teachers and other students
- Reduces expenses associated with commuting
- Allows access to online and on-site resources and services
- Requires a high level of organization and motivation
- Less flexibility in scheduling than online programs
Step 2 – Becoming Certified
While becoming certified is certainly not a requirement, it does come highly recommended. Employers are more likely to hire Certified Medical Assistants (CMA), and typically offer higher pay to job candidates that have been certified.
In order to be eligible to sit for the CMA exam, you must complete a medical assistant training program through an accredited school. The examination is given in January, June, and October of each year. The cost of the exam is between $95 and $145 for AAMA, ABHES, CAAHEP, and NCCA members, and $195 for non-members.
Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to study for the exam. There are many exam prep programs available, both free and paid, that are designed to help you prepare. The American Association of Medical Assistants also offers a Certified Medical Assistant practice exam, an exam content outline, and links to study resources for extra help.
Step 3 – Preparing Your Resume
Once you have completed your training and passed your certification exam, it is time to prepare your professional resume. Your resume and cover letter are your chance to make an excellent first impression with potential employers. Take the time to prepare a resume that will present you as a highly qualified and desirable professional.
Keep the cover letter and the resume concise, while still providing ample information on your skills and qualifications. Use specialized healthcare industry terminology as appropriate to describe your knowledge and skills, and include keywords that will capture the attention of anyone scanning the resume.
Finally, take the time to do some research on prospective employers and customize your cover letter and resume to fit the mission and values of the business. Although it takes a little more time and effort to customize your submissions, it will show employers that you are serious about becoming a vital part of the team.
Step 4 – Finding a Job
Although there may be many medical assisting jobs open across the nation, finding and landing the right position can be somewhat tricky if you have no experience. The key is thinking outside the box. Instead of simply applying with physician’s offices and general care clinics, expand your job search to include specialists such as podiatrists, chiropractors, obstetricians, and more.
In the early stages of your career, you may have more luck landing a position with a smaller facility. You can then work up to your dream job as you gain experience in the field.
It’s also a great idea to take full advantage of your school’s job placement services and to become a member of your local AAMA chapter. Joining AAMA will help you make valuable contacts and allow you to connect with prospective employers. Finally, employment websites such as Monster and Indeed also serve as great resources for locating and connecting with healthcare employers.
Acing the Interview
Getting invited to interview is just the first step to getting your dream job. A great interview will almost surely land you the job, while a few less-than-perfect answers may result in a missed opportunity.With so much riding on the interview, it is important to know what types of questions to expect so you can be fully prepared.
While each interview is unique, there are basically three types of questions involved in interviewing for a medical assistant position: hard skills questions, practice specific questions, and cultural fit questions.
Here are some sample questions you may be asked:
Hard Skills Questions
- Where did you receive your education? Are you certified?
- Are you experienced with medical software?
- Explain your knowledge of HIPAA.
- What OSHA training have you received?
- Are you CPR certified?
- What skills do you have in phlebotomy and/or x-ray?
- What (podiatry, cardiology, etc.) procedures have you assisted with?
- Do you have experience with patient education duties?
- What type of decisions have you made on your own in a medical environment?
- Are you prepared to switch roles and tasks as needed?
- Have you worked with (children, teens, elderly patients, etc.) in the past?
- What interests you about this practice?
Cultural Fit Questions
- How would you handle a difficult patient?
- How do you deal with stress?
- Are you a capable multi-tasker?
- What would you do if you did not get along with a coworker?
- Are you comfortable making decisions on your own?
- Do you take initiative to complete tasks without direction?
This is just a sample of the types of questions you may encounter during a medical assistant job interview. Since the actual questions you encounter may vary greatly, it is important to spend time truly thinking about why you are applying for the position, what you love about medical assisting, and what skills and talents you bring to the table.
Once you have fully prepared yourself to answer interview questions to the best of your ability, the next step is to prepare to present yourself well. Dress professionally, choosing stylish yet conservative attire. Also be sure to stand straight, make eye contact, speak clearly, and exude confidence. This shows potential employers that you believe in the value of your skills, and that you will be able to confidently tackle the demands of the job.
While talking with the interviewer, mimic their level of familiarity and be sure to answer questions succinctly using professional language and without rambling. Be prepared to describe specific instances from your experience without being overconfident or cocky. Also, be sure to ask questions that demonstrate your interest in the business and the position.
End the interview with a handshake, and thank the interviewer for the opportunity. While it is okay to express hope that you will hear from the interviewer soon, avoid sounding needy and desperate, as this could undermine your professional image.
Becoming a medical assistant is a relatively simple process, especially when you consider the many rewards the profession offers. If you have the drive and dedication needed to pursue training and land a medical assistant job, you will find yourself working in one of the most promising careers in healthcare.
Still want to become a medical assistant? Check out our list of the top regionally accredited medical assistant programs.