Medical Assistant Career Overview

by Maura Deering
Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

Medical assistants work as part of healthcare teams providing support to physicians. These in-demand professionals belong to one of the fastest growing occupations due to an increase in medical facilities, an aging population, and technological advancements.

Medical Assistant Career Overview
Credit: Jetta Productions/David Atkinson / Getty Images

Medical Assistant Career in Brief

HS Diploma or certificate required
certification optional


Medical assistants perform administrative, clinical, and patient liaison duties. They serve as key members of healthcare teams dedicated to patient care.

A young female medical assistant is at a hospital reception desk helping a senior patient fill out her check-in forms.

Credit: Eric Audras / ONOKY / Getty Images

Where Do Medical Assistants Work?

Medical assistants find employment in physicians' and other practitioners' offices, hospitals, and outpatient care centers. The list below outlines typical duties within each workplace, although tasks vary according to state laws and a healthcare facility's needs.

  • Physicians' Offices

    Medical assistants schedule appointments and assist with exams; in some states, they can administer medication under supervision.

  • Hospitals

    Medical assistants take vital signs, sterilize medical instruments, remove stitches, and change dressings.

  • Outpatient Care Centers

    Medical assistants collect patients' personal information, update electronic health records, and prepare samples for lab testing.

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Why Become a Medical Assistant?

The 19% job growth projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) during 2019-2029 indicates ample medical assistant employment opportunities. However, a median annual medical assistant salary of $35,850 may be a drawback. The list below offers some pros and cons to consider.

Advantages to Becoming a Medical Assistant

Numerous jobs and high projected growth Extensive education unnecessary Opportunities to help people

Disadvantages to Becoming a Medical Assistant

Low pay Potentially long hours that may include evenings, weekends, and holidays Limited career advancement without further education

How to Become a Medical Assistant

Students can take different pathways to becoming a medical assistant, including high school diplomas with on-the-job training and postsecondary certificates. While not required, certification leads to more opportunities.

Earn a high school diploma or equivalent.
A high school diploma constitutes the minimum requirement for becoming a medical assistant along with training, which can take a few months to complete.
Graduate from an accredited medical assistant program.
Most medical assistants receive training through one-year accredited postsecondary programs that award a certificate or diploma. Programs typically take place at community colleges and technical schools.
Apply for Medical Assistant Certification.
Graduates of accredited programs qualify to sit for the exam to become a certified medical assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
Pass the CMA Exam.
The CMA Exam includes 200 multiple choice questions testing general, clinical, and administrative knowledge during four 40-minute segments. Many employers prefer — and some even require — CMA certification.

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

The average medical assistant salary totals $36,930 per year. However, wages often depend on the industry and geographical location, as detailed in the tables below. At the same time, medical assistants' strong job outlook extends primarily to those with CMA certification who can work with electronic health records. As hiring more medical assistants to perform basic clinical and administrative tasks allows physicians to see more patients, the job growth appears promising.

Top Paying States for Medical Assistants
Top Paying States Average Salary Total Number of Medical Assistants
Alaska $46,610 2,500
Washington $45,700 15,870
District of Columbia $45,340 1,860
Massachusetts $43,090 14,160
Minnesota $43,090 9,320
Source: BLS
Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Medical Assistants
Top Paying Metropolitan Areas Average Salary Total Number of Medical Assistants
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $53,960 12,620
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $53,660 1,130
Santa Rosa, CA $52,520 1,670
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA $49,070 8,700
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $49,020 4,960
Source: BLS
Top Paying Industries for Medical Assistants
Industry Average Salary
Junior Colleges $48,720
Agencies, Brokerages, and Other Insurance Related Activities $43,910
Outpatient Care Centers $42,330
Computer Systems Design and Related Services $41,490
Professional and Commercial Equipment and Supplies Merchant Wholesalers $40,870
Source: BLS

Opportunities for Career Advancement

Career advancement for medical assistants typically requires continued education, certification, or a segue into a career like nursing. See below for career options and pathways.

Earn an AAMA Assessment-based Certification

Certification areas include health education, geriatrics, and pediatrics, and medical assistants can earn their credentials online.

Earn Your Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An ADN program can be completed in two years and prepares graduates for entry-level nursing positions.

Earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

While only an ADN is required to practice as a registered nurse (RN), the American Association of Colleges of Nursing advocates for the BSN as the minimum requirement for RNs, and most employers prefer BSN-holders. A BSN may take four years to complete, but it is worth the time.

Become an RN

Currently, both an ADN and a BSN qualify graduates to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to become RNs.

Frequently Asked Questions


What is the difference between a CMA and certified nursing assistant (CNA)?

While some CMA and CNA duties overlap, CNAs provide basic personal care to their patients under the supervision of a nurse, such as helping them bathe, dress, and turn over in bed. CMAs review documented medical histories, assist during exams and procedures, administer medication under supervision in some states, and perform administrative tasks.

How long does it take to become a medical assistant?

Medical assistants can complete training at a hospital or medical facility within a few months. A postsecondary certificate or diploma at a community college, technical school, or vocational college takes about a year to complete. The certification process spans less than one year, including studying for and taking the exam.

What skills are important for medical assistants?

Medical assistants need analytical skills to read patients' charts and records, interpersonal skills to work with a variety of patients and healthcare staff under stressful conditions, and technical skills to use clinical instruments. Professionals must be detail-oriented to properly take vital signs and perform tasks such as coding insurance forms.

What type of questions are included on the CMA exam?

The exam's 200 multiple choice questions cover psychology, communication, professionalism, medical terminology, and medical ethics, along with medical law and regulatory guidelines and risk management, quality assurance, and safety. Administrative questions address medical reception, patient advocacy, business practices, finances, and medical records. Clinical topics include anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, patient procedures, nutrition, and first aid.

Resources for Medical Assistants

  • The AAMA offers CMA certification, continuing education resources, medical news and blogs, and hosts an annual conference. Member benefits include practice rights protection, job listings, insurance, and networking and volunteer opportunities. Students can join at a significantly discounted rate and enjoy benefits like student groups and a career center.
  • An association of allied health professionals, AMT offers medical assistant and other certifications. Member benefits include exam prep, a career center, volunteer opportunities, and networking through local chapters and online communities. Certification confers membership, which also includes access to AMT's annual meeting and industry publications.
  • NHA offers medical assistant certification, along with credentials in other areas, such as billing and coding specialist and electronic healthcare records specialist. NHA also advocates for frontline healthcare workers, hosts a job board and career blog, and publishes research, publications, and case studies. Membership is not required to access online resources.


Related Pages


Reviewed by:

Brandy Gleason is a nursing professional with nearly twenty years of varied nursing experience. Gleason currently teaches as an assistant professor of nursing within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches graduate students. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.

Gleason is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.

NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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