Medical assisting involves supporting physicians and other health care staff in a variety of administrative and clinical duties.
Medical assistants are not to be confused with physician assistants who examine, diagnose, and treat patients under the supervision of a physician. Medical assistants support physicians and other health care staff through administrative and clinical duties. The scope of their duties varies according to the size of the facilities in which they work. For example, in a large office, the medical assisting duties may be divided among a number of staff, one arranging for hospital or outside laboratory testing for patients, another scheduling appointments, with still others handle only insurance forms, keep patient records, do the bookkeeping, or are involved with direct care of the patient. Small offices may require the medical assistant to do most of these duties or to share them with one other administrative person.
Clinical duties are subject to the state laws in which the medical assistant works. Some of these duties include taking patient medical histories, preparing patients for medical exams and other procedures, taking patients' vital signs, taking x rays, taking and preparing laboratory specimens such as drawing blood, and performing basic lab tests in the office. Medical assistants may also be responsible for disposing of contaminated supplies and sterilizing equipment. They may prepare and administer medications, authorize drug refills, remove sutures, and change dressings.
Specialists may employ medical assistants who have training in their specific fields. Among these are podiatrists, ophthalmologists, and chiropractors. Podiatric medical assistants take x rays, make casts of feet, and assist podiatrists in surgery. Ophthalmic medical assistants administer vision tests, test eye function, administer eye-drops, maintain surgical instruments, and assist ophthalmologists in surgery.
All medical assistants deal with the public, and many directly with patients. They must be neat and well groomed and have a pleasant manner. They must be able to put patients at ease and explain to them medical procedures and medication requirements.
Medical assistants may advance to office manager or other administrative support positions. They may also qualify to teach medical assisting.
Medical assistants work in clean, well-lighted offices and hospitals, interacting with patients, co-workers, and supervisors daily. Most medical assistants (about 65% in 1998) are employed in physicians' offices, while about 20% work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other related health care facilities. All others work in the offices of chiropractors, ophthalmologists, and podiatrists.
Education and training
There is no formal licensing for medical assistants, and on-the-job training was considered the norm in the past. In 2001, employers are beginning to require that medical assistants have formal training. Medical assisting programs can be found in vocational/technical high schools, technical colleges, community and junior colleges, and in universities and colleges. Most technical programs offer a certificate or diploma after one year of study. Two-year programs offer an associate degree.
The course of study incorporates two main areas: administrative and clinical. The administrative emphasis
Accredited programs are certified by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools. In 1999, there were 590 schools accredited by these organizations. The Committee on Accreditation for Ophthalmic Medical Personnel accredited 14 others.
Among the certificates that verify a standard of competency for medical assistants are the Certified Medical Assistant (the American Association of Medical Assistants), Registered Medical Assistant (the American Medical Technologists), and the Podiatric Medical Assistant Certified (the American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants). The Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology offers three certificates: Ophthalmic Medical Assistant, Certified Ophthalmic Technician, and Certified Ophthalmic Medical Technologist.
Advanced education and training
With additional training, medical assistants may enter other related health fields such as medical technology.
The employment outlook for medical assistants will be increasing over the next decade. Demand for medical assistants is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through 2008. It is expected to be one of the 10 fastest growing occupations in the United States. This is due to the increased number of group medical practices, clinics, and related health care facilities that will require assistants. Due to the flexibility of the medical assistant's job focus, medical assistants will be highly sought after. Private outpatient settings will experience the most growth. Formally trained medical assistants will be in high demand.
Currently, earnings range from $14,000 to $24,000, with the average being around $21,000 annually. Private medical practices and hospitals have the highest salary range. This is expected to increase with demand.
Chiropractor—A specialist who treats disorders by manipulating the spine and bones.
Medical assistant—A professional who supports physicians and other health care staff in a variety of administrative and clinical duties.
Ophthalmologist—A physician who treats vision problems and diseases of the eye.
Physician assistant—A professional who examines, diagnoses, and treats patients under the supervision of a physician.
Podiatrist—A physician who treats foot disorders.
Fremgen, Bonnie F. Essentials of Medical Assisting: Administrative and Clinical Competencies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Brady Prentice Hall, 1998.
Occupational Outlook Handbook, First Edition. US Department of Labor, 2000.
Primm, Russell E. Medical Assistant. Mankato, MN: Capstone High/Low Books, 1998.
The American Association of Medical Assistants. 20 North Wacker Dr., Suite 1575, Chicago, IL 60606-2903. <http://www.aama-ntl.org>.
Registered Medical Assistants of American Medical Technologists. 710 Higgins Rd., Park Ridge, IL. 60068-5765. <http://www.amtl.com>.
Janie F. Franz