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What Is a Medical Assistant?

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated March 15, 2023
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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.
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How Long to Become:
1-2 years

Job Outlook:
16% growth from 2021-2031

Average Annual Salary:

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

HS Diploma or Certificate Required
Certification Optional

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

medical professional working at desk

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Administrative Responsibilities

  • Monitoring patients’ conditions and informing the healthcare provider of important changes
  • Answer phones, check patients in, and schedule appointments
  • Update patients’ medical records and code insurance forms
  • Perform billing and bookkeeping tasks
  • Coordinate hospital admissions and lab services

Clinical Duties

  • Review patients’ recorded medical histories
  • Relay lab results
  • Prepare instruments for exam and assist during exams
  • Transcribe medical documents

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.


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 16% job growth projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) during 2021-2031 indicates ample medical assistant employment opportunities. However, a median annual medical assistant salary of $37,190 may be a drawback. The list below offers some pros and cons to consider.

Advantages to Becoming a Medical Assistant

  • check-circleNumerous jobs and high projected growth
  • check-circleExtensive education unnecessary
  • check-circleOpportunities to help people

Disadvantages to Becoming a Medical Assistant

  • x-circleLow pay
  • x-circlePotentially long hours that may include evenings, weekends, and holidays
  • x-circleLimited career advancement without further education

How to Become a Medical Assistant

A high school diploma, GED certificate, or GRE score is the only educational prerequisite you need to enroll in a medical assistant program.

To get a job in the field, you must graduate from a medical assistant program accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Medical assistant programs offered by vocational centers or colleges may take 12 months or fewer to complete. Some community colleges offer two-year medical assistant programs leading to an associate degree.

Students in medical assistant programs receive training in basic medical care, such as taking vital signs, administering injections, and drawing blood.

The curriculum often includes classes and lab experiences in subjects like pharmacology, microbiology, urinalysis, and hematology. Coursework also covers administrative and procedural duties, healthcare records, and cultural sensitivity. All programs require a clinical internship component.

Graduation from an accredited program qualifies you to take the CMA (AAMA) exam administered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Although medical assistants may work in the field without the CMA certification, many employers prefer or require it.

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

The BLS projects medical assistant jobs to grow by 16% between 2021 and 2031, increasing at a much faster rate than most other occupations.

The demand for medical assistants will continue to expand as the aging U.S. population requires more preventive healthcare services. As the need for medical services grows, physicians’ offices, clinics, and outpatient centers will increasingly rely on the medical assistants to perform administrative and clinical duties

Medical assistants earn an average annual wage of $38,190, or $18.36 an hour, according to May 2021 BLS data.

Annual salaries range from $29,070 for the lowest 10% to $48,170 for the top percentile of earners. Several factors such as location, type of employer, and certifications impact earning potential.

The top-paying states for medical assistants, which include Washington D.C., Alaska, California, and Massachusetts, all offer average annual salaries above $44,000.

Opportunities for Career Advancement

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

  • chevron-right

    Earn an AAMA Assessment-based Certification

    Certification areas include , and medical assistants can earn their credentials online.
  • chevron-right

    Earn Your Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

    An can be completed in two years and prepares graduates for entry-level nursing positions.
  • chevron-right

    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 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.
  • chevron-right

    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 .

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.

Page last reviewed December 10, 2022

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