Medical Assistant Job Description: What do MAs do?

Share

Topics on this page:

Medical Assistants (MAs) are often the first point of contact for many patients seeking treatment from a doctor, dentist, or other specialized medical professional. MAs can be found in clinics and physician’s offices throughout the country. There are two main types of medical assisting positions: clinical and administrative. Those who work in smaller offices are usually expected to perform both sets of duties. Depending on the individual facility, these MAs may also have additional duties assigned to them. MAs are currently in high demand and that trend is expected to continue for quite some time. According to the United States Department of Labor, it is estimated that of the 20 fastest growing occupations in the United States, at least half will be in a medical related field. Within the next decade, the employment of MAs is expected to grow by 31%, which is 20% faster than the national average.

The continuing growth of this field can be attributed to the following factors:

  • Technological advances continually being made in the medical field.
  • The number of routine clinical procedures performed by MAs is on the rise.
  • Our population is aging and growing.
  • An increase in the frequency of specific diseases, such as obesity and diabetes.
  • And more…

There are approximately 540,000 MAs practicing in the U.S. today. By 2020, this number is predicted to increase to 690,000 with more than 60% working in private practices. The map below illustrates the employment share of medical assistants, per thousand job holders in different occupations, referred to as the local quotient (LQ). The national average is 4.18 MAs per one thousand jobs, which equals a location quotient of 1. Metropolitan areas with a higher LQ have a higher employment share. California, for example, has a location quotient of 1.39, meaning for every 1000 jobs, 6 of those are medical assistant jobs.

 Employment share map of medical assistants

Unlike many other industries, those in the healthcare field can expect to enjoy lasting job security for years to come. For those interested in joining the medical profession, becoming a medical assistant is an excellent point-of-entry. The only prerequisite for entering this field is that a high school diploma or an equivalent, such as a GED, is required. However, an increasing number of employers now prefer or even require an applicant to become a certified medical assistant. There are many certificates that require you to complete a one- or two-year formal training program.  Pursuing this type of program may not be a bad idea anyway, as it might give you an edge over other candidates.

The average yearly income for medical assistants across the country is $28,300 while the highest 10 percent are earning over $39,570. However, wages vary from state to state and office to office.  One way to increase your earning potential from the very beginning, would be to obtain formal training and a certificate.

Clinical and administrative medical assistants

clinical medical assistantAs previously mentioned there are two main types of medical assisting positions: clinical and administrative. Each position carries its own unique duties and responsibilities. However, it is not uncommon for MAs that work in smaller offices to be tasked with both clinical and clerical work. According to an AAMA (American Association of Medical Assistants) study regarding the amount of time spent on both tasks, 75% of a MAs time was taken up by clinical duties, while the remaining 25% of their time was spent on clerical administrative tasks.

A clinical medical assistant’s duties will often vary from office to office. But, for the most part, a clinical medical assistant handles day-to-day clinical duties such as:

  • Recording vital signs, weight, and height.
  • Prepping patients, equipment, and rooms for medical procedures.
  • Providing assistance to doctors during medical procedures.
  • Keeping the rooms neat, clean, and sanitized.
  • Keeping the office properly stocked with medical equipment and supplies.
  • Cleaning and sterilizing instruments and equipment.
  • Explaining treatment procedures to patients.
  • Preparing and administering medications as directed by the physician.
  • Disposing of bio-waste and contaminated supplies.

Depending on the employer and the qualifications of the individual, clinical MAs are sometimes responsible for other hands-on duties like:

  • Collecting specimen samples for testing.
  • Drawing blood or venipuncture.
  • Removing sutures.
  • Authorizing prescription refills.
  • Helping physicians examine and treat patients by providing them with instruments or materials.
  • Completing supportive tasks during examinations, such as giving injections.
  • Changing sterile dressings on wounds.
  • Operating electrocardiograms or X-ray machines.
  • Performing routine laboratory tests.

Some of the tools MAs must be familiar with include, but are not limited to:

  • audiometers
  • plethysmographs
  • blood pressure measuring equipment
  • nebulizers
  • spirometers
  • hypodermic needles

administrative clerical medical assistantThe position of an administrative / clerical medical assistant usually doesn’t include the same variety of tasks that a clinical MA performs. The duties of an administrative medical assistant usually take place behind a desk. These MAs handle basic paperwork, interact with patients, and arrange for hospital stays. In some cases, they perform billing, insurance inquiries, and bookkeeping duties. As with clinical medical assistants, the responsibilities can vary from office to office. Some of these include:

  • Interviewing patients to obtain medical information.
  • Recording a patient’s medical history.
  • Documenting information in medical records (such as test results).
  • Greeting patients.
  • Logging in patient arrivals.
  • Answering telephones.
  • Scheduling appointments.
  • Arranging for payment.
  • Completing insurance forms.
  • Ordering supplies and equipment for the medical facility, lab, or office.

In addition to knowing how to perform those specific duties, there are a few other qualifications and traits that successful MAs share. These include:

  • A desire to help others is paramount.
  • Medical assistants must be familiar with computers and typing proficiency is a plus.
  • Since medical assistants often interact with patients and co-workers, it is important that they have good people skills. A good, polite bedside manner and the ability to make patients feel at-ease in all situations is a must. Those who do not relate well with others would probably find this career unsuitable. But individuals who enjoy interacting with people can thrive in this environment.
  • Organizational skills are important for all types of medical assistants. It is vital that you utilize proper organizational skills when duties involve medical equipment, paperwork, and keeping track of patient information.

Work activities and context

The following data was compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It gives an overview of the daily work activities in which medical assistants are involved. Although all activities are important, not all of them have the same priority level. The following tables provide a summary of the top 10 activities. These are ranked from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most frequent and most important and 10 being the least frequent and least important.

This data was collected from a survey sent to 1.2 million medical establishments in the United States. The figures are estimated and based on a sample size that includes over 60% of the total national employment figure. Employers of larger medical facilities comprise most of the sample, so the information from the survey may be less accurate when applied to smaller health care facilities.

Work activities

Importance Work activity performed by medical assistants on an average working day
1 Documenting/Recording Information – Entering, transcribing, recording, storing, or maintaining information in written or electronic/magnetic form. This includes:
  • Inventory of medical supplies or instruments
  • maintaining medical records
  • posting medical insurance billings
  • recording medical history or data
  • taking dictation
2 Assisting and caring for others – Providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support, or other personal care to others including patients, coworkers, or other customers. This entails:
  • administering injections, medications, or treatments
  • assisting in examining or treating dental or medical patients
  • collecting specimens from patients
  • conducting medical tests
  • drawing blood
  • preparing and positioning patients for tests, therapy, or treatments
  • taking vital signs
  • working with persons with mental disabilities or illnesses
  • preparing bodies for interment
3 Communicating with supervisors, peers, or subordinates – Providing information to supervisors, co-workers, and subordinates via telephone, written form, e-mail, or in person.
4 Compiling Information – Obtaining information from all relevant sources via interviews with patients, family members, medical personnel, and tests.
  • collecting clinical data
  • obtaining information from clients or customers as needed
5 Working directly with the public – Good interpersonal skills are a critical component of dealing directly with the public and providing great customer service. This includes contact with patients, family members, and other customers.
6 Identifying objects, actions, and events – Identifying information by categorizing, estimating, recognizing differences or similarities, and detecting changes in circumstances or events.
7 Establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships – Developing constructive and cooperative working relationships with others and maintaining them over time.
8 Evaluating information to determine compliance with standards – Using relevant information and individual judgment to determine whether events or processes comply with laws, regulations, or standards.
  • ensuring correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling
9 Organizing, planning, and prioritizing work – Developing specific goals and plans to prioritize, organize, and accomplish your work.
10 Interpreting the meaning of information for Others – Translating or explaining what information means and how it can be used.

Work context

Importance Work context for an average working day of a medical assistant
1 Contact with People – Clinical MAs will experience a higher frequency of contact with others than administrative MAs. Nonetheless, contact with others is a major component of this particular job.
2 Telephone and computer activities – Handling telephone conversations, email communication, and data input on a daily basis.
3 Working in cadence with team members – Serve as a liaison between physicians, patients, and other medical personnel, while acting as a valuable member of the team or group.
4 Face-to-Face Communications – Dealing with patients, the family members of patients, co-workers, other medical professionals, and customers requires the ability to handle face-to-face discussions successfully and with ease while on the job.
5 Importance of Accuracy – Due to the nature of the job, it is important to be exact or highly accurate in job performance and all other activities.
6 Exposure to disease and/or infections – Some minor exposure to disease/infections may occur, but with the proper precautions, the danger is minimal.
7 Decision Making – Both clinical and administrative MAs must frequently make decisions that affect other people, the financial resources of the company, or the perceived image of the organization.
8 Impact of decision making on co-workers or company – The decisions made by clinical and administrative MAs typically affect other individuals including patients, co-workers, company owners, customers, and more. However, not everyone involved is always directly affected.
9 Indoor Environment – Both clinical and administrative MAs spend the majority of their working time in an indoor environment.
10 Standing on your feet – Both clinical and administrative MAs may spend some time standing on their feet while performing their work duties. In general, clinical MAs will spend a greater amount of time doing so.

Medical assistant training

medical assistant trainingThere are various training paths that can lead to a career as a medical assistant. Many students enroll in a one-year post-secondary program at a community or technical college, to obtain their certification. However, about 40 percent go through a two-year associate’s degree program with the intent to move on later. Also, depending on the employer, you might be able to receive on-the-job training. If that is the case, there is no need to complete a program and gain a certification. It then becomes the responsibility of the hiring medical professional to teach you the required tasks and duties for keeping the office running smoothly. It is estimated that 11% of all MAs have taken this on-the-job training route.

Unlike other occupations in the healthcare industry that require a license to legally be employed, medical assistants have no legal obligation or compliance standards. However, according to statistics more and more employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants, such as CMAs or RMAs. Moreover, when pursuing a job, certification gives you a professional edge over other candidates vying for the same positions. As a result, you are more likely to enjoy better job prospects and higher wages. That’s one of the reasons why nearly 60% of all MAs are already certified, with the trend on the increase.

To be eligible to take a certification examination, a MA must have previously completed a post-secondary medical assisting program accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). So when enrolling in a medical assisting program, be sure to pay attention to whether or not your program is accredited by one of these organizations.

After completing your training, you may choose from four different organizations that grant certification in medical assistance:

  • The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
  • The American Medical Technologists (AMT)
  • The National Health Association (NHA)
  • The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT)

All of them are equally respected associations, offering nationally recognized medical assisting certifications. However, each entity has its own individual requirements. Some require the assistant to have some job experience, while others require completion of a specific program. In most cases, an applicant must be at least 18 years of age before applying.

Career development

Obtaining a job as a medical assistant is also an excellent way to break into more advanced jobs in several different fields. Many medical assistants are able to put their experience to good use in the medical industry by becoming nurses. Others branch out into other fields such as teaching. Office managers, financial assistants, and accounting assistants are all examples of common jobs that medical assistants often carry out after leaving a medical assistant position.

Clerical and administrative medical assistants in particular, gain experience that can be used in many other industries that have office components. Clinical MAs can progress or specialize in specific medical fields, such as ophthalmology, podiatry, or optometry. Medical assisting is an excellent field that promises to increase in demand, while also broadening an individual’s employment opportunities.

What are the working conditions of a medical assistant?

Medical assistants may require long hours on their feet and they must move with the pace of a busy clinic. Especially in hospital settings, medical assistants may be required to work over 40 hours at times and work irregular shifts. This is also true for any 24 hour facilities, where one will most likely be expected to work evenings and weekends in certain rotations. But for the most part, MAs will have more regular daytime work hours.

Working conditions also depend on the type of location. Approximately 72% of medical assistants work in smaller medical facilities that employ fewer than 100 people. However, there are also jobs available in private and public hospitals. Here is the breakdown of the larger facilities in which the remaining medical assistants work:

  • 12% work in facilities having 100 to 500 employees
  • 6% work in facilities having 500 to 1000 employees
  • 10% work in facilities having more than 1000 employees

In all cases, the conditions of the work place should be sterile and well-lit. The pace of each type of environment will differ greatly. The universal expectation is that you possess the ability to handle many responsibilities at once, while consistently interacting with clients and other staff. Your work environment will also be dictated by your specific responsibilities. Working in the patient area of the office means more time on your feet assisting with medical duties, while working in the front office dealing with clerical matters will be more sedentary.

There is always going to be some level of on-the-job training, no matter where you are employed. You will be required to be active, meticulous, and a good problem solver as part of your job expectations. Since a medical assistant position is an entry-level job within the medical field, a majority of your MA coworkers are not going to have much experience.  The experience level of MAs is as follows:

  • 43% of assistants have under 1 year of experience
  • 24% have 2 to 5 years of experience
  • 17% have 5 to 10 years of experience
  • 9% have 10 to 15 years of experience
  • 7% have over 15 years of experience