How to Become a Medical Assistant

Medical assistants are trained professionals who assist a physician in treating and diagnosing patients. They perform both medical and administrative duties and may work in clinics, hospitals, outpatient clinics or similar medical facilities. They are a valued member of the medical industry. Here is some information on medical assistants, including training programs, degree levels, duties, and career outlook.

Degree Level for Medical Assistants

Individuals who aspire to become medical assistants (MAs) have a few different career paths from which to choose. While some receive on-the-job training, most MAs complete formal education or medical assistant training programs. Medical assistant training is available at technical schools, vocational schools, and community colleges. Students can choose certificate, diploma, or associate degree programs. MA certificate or diploma programs usually take 9 months to a year to complete, while associate degree programs take two years to complete. An example of an associate degree MA program might be an Associate of Applied Science in Medical Assisting.

Training Programs

The type of training MA students receive has a lot to do with the type of program they’ve chosen. The main difference between diploma or certificate programs and associate degree programs, besides the duration, is the courses. Diploma and certificate programs focus heavily on the medical courses students need to work on as medical assistants. Students in associate degree programs are required to take the medical courses plus general education courses. MA training consists of coursework, lab studies, and clinical work. The student must complete all three components. The clinical portion is extremely important because it helps students to obtain hands-on training.

What Students Learn

Students in the MA program learn various practical skills and ideas, including taking and recording patient vital signs; recording patient history; interacting with patients; scheduling appointments; coding paper and electronic health records; preparing blood samples for lab work; administering medications or injections as permitted and performing administrative duties. According to All Allied Health Schools, medical assistant students generally take the following courses in the certificate, diploma and associate degree levels:

  • Patient care
  • Anatomy & Physiology
  • Medical terminology
  • Intro to medical billing and coding procedures
  • Intercultural communications
  • Pharmacology
  • Clinical and diagnostic procedures
  • Phlebotomy
  • Medical ethics and laws
  • Human biology
  • Medical computer applications

Students pursuing an associate degree also take general education courses like written communication, chemistry, biology, physics, math, history, and humanities. During the clinical portion of the program, the student completes an internship and works alongside a physician. The student is required to complete a specific number of hours of clinical training depending on the program. The associate degree program provides a more comprehensive and in-depth training than the certificate and diploma programs.

Cost of Medical Assisting Programs

The cost of medical assistant programs varies by school and by the program. Certificate and diploma programs often charge a flat rate for the program, which includes books, fees, and medical supplies. According to CostHelper, diploma programs can run from $1,200 – $4,200, while certificate programs at community colleges can be anywhere from $2,500 – $10,000. Associate degree programs typically charge a specific amount per credit but may also charge a flat rate. The cost of an associate degree MA program can run from $600 – $5,400 per year for residents. Out-of-state students typically pay higher amounts.


Medical assistants are not required to be licensed, and they’re not required to be certified in most states. However, many employers choose to hire MAs with certification because certification demonstrates the MAs knowledge and commitment to the field. There are several agencies that offer certification to MAs, such as: American Association of Medical Assistants, National Healthcareer Association, American Medical Technologists, and National Center for Competency Testing.

To obtain certification, the candidate must pass a certification exam. The candidate must meet eligibility requirements to be eligible to take the exam. The requirements vary by organization, but most require that the applicant has completed a formal, accredited MA training program. Each organization also has requirements to maintain certification, such as CE credits.

Career Outlook

Skilled medical assistants have a promising career outlook. The aging population in need of preventative medical services and quality healthcare puts the MA in demand. Having medical assistants on hand to perform clinical and administrative duties allows the physician to see more patients. Medical assistants are expected to see a job growth of 29 percent during the 2016-2026 decade, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

As of May 2017, medical assistants earned an average annual wage of $32,480. Medical assistants at the lowest ten percent earned about $23,830, and those at the top 90 percent earned $45,900, according to the bureau. Wages can be affected by several factors, including experience, training, certifications, employer and geographic location (BLS). Here are the five top-paying states for MAs along with the mean wage for 2017:

  • Alaska – $42,060
  • District of Columbia – $40,570
  • Washington – $39,700
  • Massachusetts – $39,310
  • Minnesota – $39,050

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