What is a Medical Assistant?
Medical assistants, or MAs, are unlicensed health care support staff who perform administrative, clerical and clinical tasks under the direct supervision of a physician or registered nurse. Some may be certified, which requires completion of a standardized exam after graduation from an accredited program of instruction. Certified MAs are usually required to complete ongoing education to retain certified status.
A Fast-Growing Profession with Good Wages
The United States Department of Labor predicts medical assisting will be one of the nation’s fastest growing occupations through 2018. In 2009, there were almost 500,000 medical assistants working in the United States. Most – about 62% – worked in doctors’ offices, 12% worked in public or private hospitals and the remainder worked in health-care facilities such as clinics, nursing care facilities or medical laboratories. Medical assistant earnings vary from state to state and also by the area in which the MA works. In 2009 the median annual income for an MA in the United States was $28,650. Sala-ries varied from $20,750 to $30,970 a year. MAs who worked in general medical and surgical hospitals or in employment service had the highest salaries, while those who worked in chiropractor or optome-trists’ offices earned the least.
Medical Assistant Duties
Medical assistant tasks may include direct patient care, scheduling appointments, answering the telephone or administrative functions such as billing or managing an office. Computer or keyboarding skills are often required, as many offices use electronic scheduling systems and patient records. People skills are very important, as is the ability to communicate clearly. Legible handwriting, attention to detail and organizational skills are also critical for a medical assistant to perform well. An MA must be able to maintain confidentiality of medical and personal information obtained in the workplace. Depending on the workplace locality, an MA may need to be fluent in a second language.
Scope of Practice and Job Description
The medical assistant’s scope of practice differs from state to state. In California, medical assistants are regulated by the California Medical Board; Connecticut MAs are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Health. The tasks a medical assistant is allowed to perform are also different. MAs in California may give medications, including intramuscular injections; in New York, MAs may not give any kind of medication. In Utah, MAs may make incisions, use local anesthesia and provide dermal resurfacing in cosmetic procedures.
Common Medical Assistant Administrative duties:
• Answer telephones
• Greet patients
• Update and file patient medical records
• Fill out insurance forms
• Handle correspondence
• Schedule appointments
• Arrange for hospital admission and laboratory services
• Perform billing and bookkeeping
Common Medical Assistant Clinical Duties
• Record vital signs
• Prepare patients for examination
• Assist the physician during the examination
• Collect and prepare laboratory specimens or perform basic laboratory tests on the premises
• Dispose of contaminated supplies
• Sterilize medical instruments
• Purchase and maintain supplies and equipment
• Keep waiting and examining rooms neat and clean.
In some states, Medical Assistants may:
• Instruct patients about medication and special diets
• Prepare and administer medications as directed by a physician
• Authorize drug refills as directed
• Telephone prescriptions to a pharmacy
• Draw blood
• Perform electrocardiograms and other diagnostic tests
• Remove sutures and change dressings
MAs in a specialty practice may have additional duties (these may vary from state to state):
• Podiatric medical assistants make castings of feet, expose and develop X-rays and assist podiatrists in surgery
• Ophthalmic medical assistants help ophthalmologists administer diagnostic tests, measure and record vision and test eye muscle function. They also show patients how to insert, remove, and care for contact lenses and may administer eye medications. They also maintain optical and surgical instruments and may assist the ophthalmologist in surgery.
The Working Environment
The work environment for a medical assistant is well-lighted and clean. Machinery in the area is usually limited to telephones, computers, lab equipment and diagnostic machines such as x-ray machines or electrocardiography equipment. Working conditions include interactions with a wide variety of people including patients, family members, other health-care professionals, sales representatives for drug and equipment companies, insurance company and pharmacy staff. The working environment can vary from a relatively quiet single physician’s office to a busy multi-specialty clinic. Both full-time and part-time jobs are usually available, with a day shift being the most common, although some MAs work evenings or nights. MAs who work in physician offices usually work Monday through Friday, while those in clinics or hospitals may also work weekends. Employment locales vary from state to state, but MAs primarily work in outpatient care settings. MAs can work in physicians’ offices and clinics in all states. In California, MAs cannot work in hospitals or nursing homes, while in Texas an MA can work in a hospital.
Most employers prefer to hire MAs who have completed a formal educational program, as this assures the individual has had some standardized training and their competence has been validated by their instructors. Programs vary from vocational-technical courses over a twelve week period to associate degree programs. Courses include anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, record keeping and insurance processing. In addition, MA students learn clinic laboratory techniques, clinical and diagnostic procedures, patient relations, medical law, pharmacology and ethics. If a program is accredited, it provides an externship that allows the student to gain practical experience in a physician’s office, clinic or other health care facility. Formal training as an MA is not always required. In some states, physicians can train their own medical assistants on the job, although this practice is becoming less common.
Why Be a Medical Assistant?
Being a medical assistant can be stressful and emotionally challenging; health care is a complex, fast-changing field where people are often anxious or afraid and they need emotional support. However, health care is also very rewarding – teaching a diabetic how to self-manage her insulin, supporting a woman through her pregnancy or caring for chronically ill children can provide a real sense of accomplishment. A medical assistant should always try to treat people with respect and dignity; patience and kindness are useful qualities. It’s important to remember that health-care is a giving profession. MAs must learn to take care of themselves as well as others to maintain their own health and continue providing high quality, compassionate care.