The Medical Assistant (MA) profession has become popular in recent years, thanks to the rapid expansion of the healthcare industry and the proportionately growing demand with employers. Medical Assistants work in tandem doctors and other healthcare professionals in hospitals, outpatient clinics, physician’s offices and other facilities. They perform a wide variety of tasks, including administrative duties to help keep the office running and clinical duties to assist recovering patients.
Do you need to be certified to work as an MA?
While the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) offers a certification exam, you don’t need to be certified to work as an MA. There are no state and federal requirements for you to worry about. However, depending on the state you're in, you may be required to get credentials to be able to perform some of your duties – acquiring certification to become an authorized X-ray equipment operator, for example.
Many healthcare facilities require their MAs to be certified. Others will hire you to work as an uncertified medical assistant and then ask you to acquire the credentials along the way. There are some healthcare providers, though, who will train you on the job and help you learn the skills you need along the way.
Healthcare can be complicated and gaining certification to show you have the skills necessary to be competent in your chosen profession can be very helpful. There are more opportunities for advancement – with better pay – for someone who is certified than for someone who isn’t. Of course, there are highly successful non-certified MAs out there that have managed to make it in the field by dint of skill alone.
What skills do you need to acquire to be an MA?
If you are looking to become an MA without certification, you will need to have a strong skill set to will enable you to perform your duties satisfactorily. The skills you will need on the job will vary, depending on the employer and the size of the establishment you’re applying to work for. An MA usually works alongside nurses, doctors, receptionists and administrative assistants and may be asked to assist with the day-to-day duties these professionals perform.
Here is an overview of some of the core competencies (and qualities) an MA should ideally have:
- Basic office abilities:
You may be required to double as an assistant at the office and asked to talk to patients, make appointments, respond to emails, and even handle billing and bookkeeping. As such, you should be familiar with computers (you have an added advantage if you're familiar with software programs), be an excellent communicator and be good with details. You will also need to be patient if you’re working in customer care.
- Administrative skills:
Medical administration can be complex, especially when it comes to large organizations, but it is similar to regular office management. You may be required to handle a host of duties like managing the medical inventory, arranging laboratory services, maintaining patient records, creating medical histories, updating profiles, billing, working with insurance agencies, data entry and a thousand other small tasks that keep the facility running smoothly. Do proper research and analysis before you go for this.
- Clinical skills:
You will be working closely with physicians and nurses and often be required to provide basic medical care under their supervision. You will be asked to provide medication, draw blood, administer injections, record vital signs and prepare patients for examinations, among other tasks. You may also have to operate a variety of medical equipment and clean (sterilize) and maintain it.
- Interpersonal skills:
Doctors aren’t the only ones who need to practice their bedside manner. MAs are often asked to interview patients, gather relevant information and brief a doctor with it later. You will sometimes provide emergency care to patients and be called upon to help calm worked up, scared or difficult patients. You will also have to work in harmony with a diverse medical staff. A friendly manner, calm deportment and excellent communication skills can help you build relationships with patients as well as your colleagues quickly.
Working as an MA can sometimes be stressful and taxing. You have to be willing to work long hours, juggle multiple high priority tasks and perform well under pressure. You should have an eye for details, and be a troubleshooter as well as a team player. You will need to have a good memory and be a fast learner to pick up all the medical knowledge you need to perform your duties. Perhaps most importantly, you will need empathy to connect with the patients under your care.
How do you train to be a competent MA?
How do you acquire the skill set needed to be a reliable Medical Assistant? You can either undergo formal training – by signing up for paid courses at college – or go for informal or on-the-job training. Some employers will hire you without certification and train you on the job. This type of training is often limited in its scope and will prepare you to work only with the employer who taught you.
- Sponsored training:
Sponsored training (internships) may be paid or unpaid. The training you will undergo will depend on the organization you've signed up with. You will need to attend several training programs which may or may not be on-site. These training programs will help you develop the core skills required to be a good MA (at least for that employer).
- Job shadowing:
Also known as an externship, this type of training pairs you up with an experienced MA. You will have to "shadow" him or her during regular work hours, giving you a taste of your future duties as a Medical Assistant. This type of training is informal, but it lets you acquire the skills you need to succeed in this profession in a hands-on manner and is very effective.
Which kind of training should you undergo if you want to work as an MA without certification? It all depends on your career goals and where you see yourself a few years down the line. Some people treat MA training as a springboard to other more lucrative healthcare professions, like nursing, while others are happy attempting to become the MA at a prominent institution.
Depending on your work experience, if you sign up for a job with another employer in the future, you may be asked to undergo training again. The healthcare industry has evolved this past decade quickly. Regardless of what you choose to do, you have to be prepared to continuously learn/train if you want to keep up with all the advances.
How do you find your first employer/job with no credentials?
Assuming you have zero experience as well as no credentials, how do you find a healthcare provider who's willing to hire you? Here are some ways you can go about doing so:
- Volunteer with someone you know:
You can get in touch with a local clinic, hospital or physician and volunteer to assist them in their duties. You may not be allowed to help with the patients, but you can observe doctors as they work and learn more about the job. Some people managed to get employed later this way.
- Career agency:
Sign up with a job agency (if you haven't already). Professionals with contacts in the field will be able to help you locate internships/externships with little trouble.
- Ambulatory health services:
You can inquire with your local ambulatory health services, asking them about the programs they have for interns. If you are lucky, they will offer you an internship on the spot.
- Friends and acquaintances:
Do any of your family members, friends or acquaintances work in healthcare? Ask them if they know about any training programs. You can also request them to notify you if they come across any.
- Neighborhood healthcare services:
There must be a significant number of healthcare organizations in your community. Inquire with them about their training programs (they are likely to have some openings) and ask them for assistance.
- Online resources:
You can sign up for training programs online, some of which will place you directly upon completion. The internet is also a great resource if you want to search for opportunities in your area.
The quality of the care a patient receives is often dependent on the MA, making them an integral part of any caregiving staff. Not only are Medical Assistants paid pretty well, but the job satisfaction rating is also high - it’s a job that enables you to make a real difference to people’s lives.