Two smiling women in an office

How to Become a Medical Assistant

The Ultimate Career Guide for Aspiring Medical Assistants

Two smiling women in an office

Behind every successful hospital and medical practice is a team of healthcare workers who literally keep the lights on, and one of the most vital members of this team is the Medical Assistant.

What is a Medical Assistant?

Tasked with everything from office duties to sanitizing equipment to communicating important details about procedures to patients, Medical Assistants are an essential part of the healthcare machine, and without them, hospitals and clinics would quickly grind to a halt.

Unlike nurses and physician assistants (who may directly treat and diagnose patients), a Medical Assistant fills more of an administrative support role—indirectly working with patients and focusing more on the organizational side of medical care.

There are many paths to becoming a Medical Assistant (as we’ll explore in the sections below), and each of them has the possibility of leading to a fulfilling, impactful career.

Keep reading to find out exactly what a Medical Assistant does, how to become one, what certification is required, and what you can expect to earn.

Medical Assistant Responsibilities

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Female healthcare worker examining patientFor years, Medical Assistants worked primarily in clinics and emergency medical centers, but today, they can be found anywhere from medical offices to hospitals (public and private) as well.

Medical Assisting duties can vary from place to place, but they commonly include the following responsibilities:

  • Answering phones
  • Scheduling patients
  • Maintaining patient records
  • Working with insurance companies
  • Sterilizing equipment
  • Taking medical histories and vital signs
  • Communicating information and instructions to patients
  • Arranging hospital admission
  • Performing basic laboratory tests
  • Bookkeeping
  • Calling in prescriptions

In some states, Medical Assistants may also be allowed to work directly with patients.

Medical Assistant Job Description

On any given day, a Medical Assistant typically arrives for work at least 30 minutes before the first patients arrive. If any preliminary paperwork or organization is required, this is handled first, followed by a review of the day’s schedule with the medical staff.

Once patients begin arriving, a Medical Assistant’s primary task is to keep the office running smoothly. This isn’t always easy, as patients may forget appointments, run late, not have the required paperwork, or a host of other potential snags, but a good Medical Assistant works through it all—piecing together a schedule on the fly that works best for all involved.

In between patients, a Medical Assistant may be asked to take on other jobs around the office—such as administration, sanitization, billing, or other related tasks.

After the final patients leave, a Medical Assistant’s day is finished after prepping the office for the following day.

Medical Assistant Requirements

How to Become a Medical Assistant

Just as an MA’s job responsibilities may differ from location to location, the requirements to become a Medical Assistant can vary as well.

In some states, it is possible to work as a Medical Assistant without any certification. Even in those states, however, many employers may still require their Medical Assisting staff to be certificated. In the healthcare space, certification is an important step toward career advancement. It provides employers a validation of your knowledge, skills, and dedication.

Certification can also lead to higher pay and greater job opportunities.

Is Medical Assisting Right for Me?

A Medical Assisting Career May Be a Good Fit for You If…

  • You are calm under pressure
  • You are organized
  • You are detail-oriented
  • You are a clear communicator
  • You are a good coordinator
  • You enjoy talking on the phone
  • You are good with computers

Medical Assistant Certification

What Certifications are Available to Medical Assistants?

Unlike nurses and physician assistants who have very specific certification requirements, Medical Assistants have a wide variety of certification programs available to them.

  • Certified Medical Assistant – Offered through the American Medical Assistant Association, the CMA certification is one of the only certification programs that requires graduation from a postsecondary medical assisting program. The CMA is one of the most recognized and widely accepted MA certifications available, as it covers a broad range of topics and skills through its rigorous exam.
  • Registered Medical Assistant – Offered through the AMT (American Medical Technologists), the RMA certification is very similar to the CMA certification and also requires graduation from an accredited program. The RMA certification covers the same ground as the CMA (though the RMA exam is slightly shorter), but because the CMA certification was established first, it is considered the more recognizable of the two certifications.
  • National Certified Medical Assistant – The NCMA certification is provided through the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) and does not require graduation from a postsecondary program for applicants with applicable work experience. The NCMA exam involves an additional focus on medical procedures, including anatomy and physiology, medical procedures, medical terminology, and pharmacology. The testing fees tend to be less expensive than the CMA and RMA certifications.
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant – The CCMA certification is similar to the CMA certification with a few key differences. First, the CCMA is awarded by the National Healthcare Association. Second, the CCMA focuses more on clinical procedures than office management. Whereas a CMA-certified Medical Assistant may focus more on administrative tasks, a CCMA-certified Medical Assistant may work more directly with patients on a daily basis.

Medical Assistant Training

Smiling medical professional with a patient

Training to become a Medical Assistant is more than just learning how to pass a certification exam—it’s about how to best care for your future patients.

While studying to become a Medical Assistant, your medical assistant program may require you to master various topics in the following subject areas:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Medical Terminology
  • Pharmacology
  • Phlebotomy
  • Patient Care
  • Office Administration
  • Medical Software
  • Clinical Courses

How Long Does It Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

When attending a Medical Assistant college, course lengths can widely vary. Some programs can be completed in just a few months, while others can take up to two years.

Students who attend longer programs will usually earn a Medical Assistant diploma, the equivalent of an associate degree. Shorter programs will typically grant you a certificate of graduation upon completion.

How Much Does it Cost to Become a Medical Assistant?

Tuition for Medical Assistant programs can have a wide range but tend to average around $10,000, depending on the program and school you choose.

The cost of the certification exam will depend on the Medical Assistant certification you decide to pursue. This cost can range from $100 to $250.

Medical Assistant Salary

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2021, the average salary* of a Medical Assistant is about $38,000, while the average hourly wage for Medical Assistants is $18.36.

Medical Assistants who earn in the top 10th percentile can make over $50,000 annually.

Highest Paid Industries for Medical Assistants

Here is a list of occupational settings where Medical Assistants can work, ranked in order of average salary:

Industry Average Hourly Wage Average Salary
Outpatient Clinics $21.48 $44,680
Insurance Carriers $21.36 $44,420
Hospitals $20.35 $42,330
Hospitals $19.02 $39,550
Physician’s Office $18.08 $37,610

Location is another factor that may influence your financial compensation as a Medical Assistant.

Highest Paying States for Medical Assistants

State Average Hourly Wage Average Salary
Washington $22.75 $47,320
Washington, DC $22.45 $46,690
Alaska $22.30 $46,390
California $21.53 $44,780
Massachusetts $21.25 $44,200

Highest Paying Cities for Medical Assistants

City Average Hourly Wage Average Salary
Fairfield, CA $28.21 $58,670
San Francisco, CA $26.41 $54,930
San Jose, CA $25.90 $53,870
Santa Rosa, CA $25.74 $53,530
Sacramento, CA $24.78 $51,530
Seattle, WA $24.43 $50,820
Napa, CA $24.27 $50,480
Fairbanks, AK $22.62 $47,060
Portland, OR $22.41 $46,620
Olympia, WA $21.95 $45,650

Medical Assistant Career

So, you’ve completed your Medical Assistant program and aced your certification exam. Congratulations! You’re on to the final step—finding and locking down that first job.

Medical Assistant Jobs

Many programs offer an externship as part of the course of study, and those who excel in the field may find their externship hospital or clinic may offer the first full-time position. Even if your externship doesn’t hire you, they may be able to provide a letter of recommendation—which is worth its weight in gold when applying for positions elsewhere.

Openings for Medical Assistants can be found all over the country—but to narrow down the results, try talking to a career counselor where you studied or check out job listings at sites such as

Attending meetings at your local AAMA (American Association of Medical Assistants) chapter is also a good way to network and find available openings.

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

The demand for Medical Assistants is growing nationwide, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating that the field will grow by 18% over the next decade, a growth considered much higher than average.

The World Needs Medical Assistants

The work that a Medical Assistant does is indispensable for hospitals and clinics. Without well-trained Medical Assistants to support scheduling, billing, and organization, doctors and nurses will find it challenging to do their jobs, and when that happens, patients suffer.

A Medical Assistant ensures that hospitals and clinics operate smoothly, that all patients receive the care they need, and that medical staff isn’t distracted from performing their jobs.

The career opportunities are strong, the work is vital, and if you’re interested in becoming a Medical Assistant, there’s no time like right now to begin your journey.