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How to Become a Medical Assistant

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
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Updated September 28, 2023
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Most employers want certified medical assistants with accredited education. Consider these steps to compete in the job market for medical assistant roles.
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Medical assistants are the first to help patients in medical clinics and offices. They assist patients, nurse practitioners, nurses, and physicians by providing care and ensuring the facility runs smoothly. Individuals looking for careers that blend patient care and administrative duties can use this in-depth guide to learn how to become a medical assistant.

How Long to Become:
1-2 years

Degree Required:
Medical Assistant Program Certificate or Diploma

Job Outlook:
16% growth from 2021-2031
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is a Certified Medical Assistant?

Certified medical assistants are key members of the healthcare team. They are multi-skilled healthcare professionals who typically work in outpatient settings, such as clinics, medical offices, and outpatient surgical centers.

After learning to become a medical assistant, you are expected to be adept at administrative and clinical responsibilities, such as updating medical records, coordinating admissions, monitoring patient conditions, and assisting nurse practitioners or physicians during exams.

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Medical assistants handle clinical and administrative duties that are crucial to providing quality patient care in outpatient settings. The following list includes some of the most commonly required tasks, but these activities may vary based on the care setting.

Administrative Duties

  • Greeting and checking patients in
  • Updating patients’ electronic health records (EHR)
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Arranging hospital admissions and lab tests
  • Filling out insurance paperwork

Clinical Duties

  • Measuring vital signs and recording medical histories
  • Drawing blood for lab tests
  • Explaining treatment procedures
  • Assisting providers with examinations, procedures, and minor surgery
  • Removing stitches and dressing wounds

What Skills Do You Need to Become a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants learn hard skills during their programs, which they need to perform administrative and patient care duties. However, crucial soft skills are often acquired before enrolling in a medical assistant program. Consider the following:

Hard Skills

  • Medical billing and coding
  • Medical terminology
  • Keyboarding and computer applications
  • Clinical assessment and diagnostic skills
  • First aid and wound care

Soft Skills

  • Written communication
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Empathy
  • Attention to detail
  • Analytical skills

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Steps to Become a Certified Medical Assistant

To become a medical assistant, you must earn a high school diploma or its equivalent. Next, graduate from an accredited program and apply for certification. You may also advance your career through specialization and further education.

Education and certification requirements vary by state and employer. Even if your state doesn’t require certification, most organizations prefer to hire certified medical assistants, which assures your employer you have the ability and knowledge to perform the necessary duties.

  1. 1

    Earn a high school diploma or equivalent.

    A high school diploma is the minimum education requirement to work as a medical assistant. High school classes in math and science can help you succeed in your medical assistant certification.

  2. 2

    Graduate from an accredited medical assistant program.

    During your accredited medical assistant program, you develop administrative and clinical skills. On the path to becoming a medical assistant, coursework covers the basics of anatomy and physiology, along with CPR certification. You also receive coursework on the cardiovascular system and learn how to perform an electrocardiogram (EKG).

    Students learn in-class skills in medical record handling, appointment setting, scheduling, and the basics of medical billing. This includes the various types of insurance plans and companies, how to prepare a superbill, and how to use diagnosis and procedure codes.

    Medical assistants may also handle business management for private practices, and most programs include a basic education in management. This includes hiring practices, disciplinary issues, managing people with different personalities, and medical risk management.

  3. 3

    Apply for medical assistant certification.

    The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredits medical assistant certification organizations. There are five certification options for medical assistants based on eligibility and clinical care vs. administrative focus. Aspiring professionals typically pursue certification of medical assistant (CMA) credentials through the American Association of Medical Assistants.

  4. 4

    Pass the CMA (AAMA) exam.

    The CMA exam includes 200 multiple-choice questions over four 40-minute test periods. Consider taking a review course and practice exams to improve your chances of passing the CMA exam.

  5. 5

    Find employment.

    Medical assistants typically work in outpatient settings but can often find employment in clinics, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and laboratories. Some medical assistant programs work with local employers to help place students in roles within the facilities.

    Consider enrolling in an externship program or volunteering to get additional experience, which can boost your chances of finding a job. Medical assistants may also search online job boards for jobs within private clinics, laboratories, and research centers. Many hospitals maintain lists of open positions on their websites.

  6. 6

    Advance Your Career With Continued Education

    Medical assistants work in entry-level positions within healthcare but can specialize their work and advance their careers. Certification as a clinical or administrative medical assistant demonstrates your advanced knowledge and skills in these areas.

    Within clinical practice, medical assistants can specialize in cardiology, family practice, geriatrics, and ophthalmology, among other areas. They may also consider continuing their education in other healthcare subjects.

    Some assistants pursue nursing education with associate degrees in nursing (ADNs) or bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) programs. ADN-prepared nurses can advance to BSN degrees through RN-to-BSN bridge programs, which are often available completely online. Other options include:

Certified Medical Assistant Schooling

Candidates typically follow two paths to medical assistant certification: a CMA certificate or an associate degree in medical assisting. You may graduate from an accredited program for medical assistants or earn an accredited associate degree.

A medical assistant program takes 9-12 months to complete, while associate degrees take two years and offer a stepping stone to BSN programs.

Certificate Program

A certificate program is an entry-level education pathway on your journey to becoming a medical assistant. The program suits individuals who need to begin working quickly, with most coursework available online. Graduates from accredited programs meet all the necessary requirements to pursue entry-level positions.

  • chevron-right

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or equivalent, admission into the school if the certificate program is administered through a higher education institution
  • chevron-right

    Program Curriculum

    Basic anatomy and physiology, clinical techniques, insurance coding, front office procedures, pharmacology, medical terminology.
  • chevron-right

    Time to Complete

    9-12 months
  • chevron-right

    Credits Earned

    30-40
  • chevron-right

    Skills Learned

    Medical terminology, patient preparation, CPR, and insurance processing.

Associate Degree Program

Associate degrees are best suited for medical assistants looking to advance their careers and ultimately complete bachelor’s degrees. The program takes at least two years of full-time enrollment to cover general education classes and medical assistant program requirements.

  • chevron-right

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or equivalent and an application
  • chevron-right

    Program Curriculum

    Medical ethics, software application, composition, anatomy and physiology, math, applied communications, externship, and medical laboratory procedures.
  • chevron-right

    Time to Complete

    Two years
  • chevron-right

    Credits Earned

    60-75
  • chevron-right

    Skills Learned

    Laboratory sample preparation, basic insurance and billing, composition and communication, and computer application.

Medical Assistant Certification

Medical assistant certification demonstrates your knowledge, skills, and career commitment to potential employers. Most healthcare companies prefer medical assistants who have graduated from accredited programs and hold certification from one of the five certifying organizations listed below. Each of the certifications has a slightly different focus and requirements.

Generally, each organization requires you to have completed an accredited program and supervised work experience. Choose your certification carefully, as it demonstrates your medical assistant expertise. You can also pursue multiple certifications.

  • Certified Medical Assistant (American Association of Medical Assistants): This is the most common certification for new medical assistants to earn before specializing in clinical care or administrative duties.
  • Registered Medical Assistant (American Medical Technologists): Candidates must be employed for at least three of the last seven years to qualify. The general national certification is recognized by most states.
  • National Certified Medical Assistant (National Center for Competency Testing): Candidates qualify for the exam if they have graduated from accredited programs or possess two years of physician-supervised, full-time work experience.
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (National Healthcareer Association): This certification demonstrates a specialized focus on clinical care, including vital signs, medications, EKGs, and phlebotomy.
  • Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (National Healthcareer Association): Certified medical assistants specialize in administrative duties, including operating computer systems, answering correspondence, coordinating operation reports, and scheduling appointments.

Working as a Certified Medical Assistant

After graduating and becoming certified to practice, a medical assistant may find employment in their local community through networking. They can also explore online job boards for outpatient clinics and physicians’ offices.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual salary of $38,270 for medical assistants as of May 2022. Discover more about medical assistant salaries and how they vary based on location and setting.

Finding a Job as a Certified Medical Assistant

The medical assistant field continues to grow quickly. BLS projections indicate a 16% job growth rate from 2022-2032, far outpacing the projected growth rate for all occupations.

Medical assistants can highlight the skills they learned in their programs, externships, and employment to stand out in the job market. If you desire a job focusing on clinical care, consider taking a short volunteer position or externship to develop experience and request a professional letter of recommendation.

Common Work Settings for Medical Assistants

The role of the medical assistant may also vary depending on the setting. According to the BLS, three of the most common workplace settings are:

  • Outpatient Centers: Medical assistants may measure vital signs, take medical histories and personal information, help providers with examinations, and schedule appointments in this setting.
  • Physicians’ Offices: In physicians’ offices, the professionals may give patients injections as permitted by state law, draw blood, take throat swabs, and enter EHRs.
  • Hospitals: Medical assistants in hospitals may schedule appointments, update treatments, assist physicians with minor procedures, and track accurate medical information.

Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming a Medical Assistant

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

A CNA is sometimes called a nurse’s aide and works directly under the supervision of a nurse, performing duties such as taking vital signs, changing bed linens, or helping patients to the bathroom. Certified medical aides (CMAs) perform administrative and clinical duties, including billing, scheduling, and operating computer software.

How long does it take to become a medical assistant?

You can become a medical assistant in nine months by completing a certificate program or two years by completing an associate degree. A certificate program allows you to start work more quickly, but an associate degree offers a stronger foundation for advancing your education.

What skills are important for medical assistants?

Medical assistants must have good clinical, communication, and organizational skills. They must possess empathy for their patients and attention to detail in clinical care and administrative duties.

What types of questions are included on the CMA exam?

The exam’s 200 multiple-choice questions cover psychology, communication, professionalism, and medical terminology, along with medical ethics, medical law, and risk management. 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.


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Page last reviewed September 8, 2023

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