What Is a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A certified medical assistant’s role combines administrative tasks with clinical duties like taking patient histories and recording vital signs. Learn more about what certified medical assistants do and how to become one.

[Featured image] A certified medical assistant in a white lap coat looks at lab results with a physician.

From administrative tasks to clinical duties, there’s plenty that can make work as a certified medical assistant varied and engaging. If you’re interested in breaking into an in-demand field and thrive in a fast-paced environment, becoming a certified medical assistant could be a rewarding career path. 

Read on to learn more about what certified medical assistants do, the skills they need, and the steps to consider taking to become one.

What is a certified medical assistant (CMA)? 

Certified medical assistants are medical assistants who have completed training and met the requirements to earn certification. This process generally requires graduation from an accredited medical assistant program in addition to passing a certification exam. 

Though several different types of certifications exist for medical assistants, certified medical assistants generally refer specifically to those who have received the CMA certification from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). 

What does a certified medical assistant do?

Medical assistants work alongside doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to assist with a mix of clinical duties and administrative tasks. The day-to-day responsibilities vary depending on the setting in which they work. Common duties include:

  • Taking patient histories and personal information

  • Measuring vital signs, such as temperature, weight, and blood pressure

  • Assisting doctors with examining patients

  • Scheduling appointments for patients

  • Preparing laboratory samples for testing

How much is a certified medical assistant’s salary?

Getting certified may pay off by boosting your annual salary. For example, while the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) puts the median hourly salary for non-certified medical assistants at $17.23 per hour, the American Association of Medical Assistants notes that the average hourly salary for certified candidates is $19.02 [1, 2]. 

Wages also vary depending on your geographic region, work setting, practice specialty, and your experience level. Certified medical assistants living in urban areas may make higher-than-average salaries to compensate for higher living expenses. As with other professions, the more years of experience you have under your belt, the more you can typically expect to earn.  

Certified medical assistants are in-demand and will likely continue to be for years to come. The BLS anticipates jobs in the field will grow by 18 percent between 2020 and 2030—much faster than the growth average for all jobs, which is about 8 percent [1].

Types of certified medical assistants

There are several certifications available to those who have completed their medical assistant training. Common nationally accredited options include:

  • Certified medical assistant (CMA): This credential is offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants. Candidates have to graduate from an accredited medical assistant program and pass the certification exam.

  • Registered medical assistant (RMA): American Medical Technologists provides this credential, which offers several different routes to certification. For this with prior experience, one route even allows for five years of medical assistant experience in place of graduating from an approved medical assistant program.

  • National certified medical assistant (NCMA): This credential from the National Center for Competency Testing focuses more on working with patients and clinical duties than administrative tasks.

  • Certified clinical medical assistant (CCMA): This credential provided by the National Healthcareer Association is geared toward individuals who are more interested in the clinical side of medical assisting.

How to become a certified medical assistant

To be an effective medical assistant, you’ll need a variety of medical, administrative, and interpersonal skills. In some cases, you may be able to learn these skills on the job before getting certified. In other cases, though, completing an approved training program may provide a more expedient path to becoming a CMA.

Certified medical assistant skills you’ll need

To do their jobs, CMAs must be able to perform both clinical and administrative duties in a complex and potentially fast-paced environment. As a result, they must employ a unique blend of technical and human skills to support physicians, patients, and hospital staff as efficiently as possible. 

To help you identify the skills you already possess and the ones you need to develop, the list below contains some of the most common skills required of professional CMAs. 

Technical skills

  • Basic medical skills: This includes performing basic procedures like changing bandages and drawing blood, taking vital signs, sterilizing instruments, and preparing patient rooms.

  • Medical administration: This includes such tasks as monitoring and ordering medical supplies, scheduling appointments, coordinating with labs and other medical providers, arranging hospital admissions, and updating patient records.

  • Office administration: This includes common office tasks like billing, bookkeeping, and answering phones.

Human skills

  • Communication: You'll be tasked with carrying out directions from managers or physicians and explaining instructions to patients.

  • Customer service: Respectfully interacting with patients and treating their concerns with compassion is an important part of the role.

  • Organization:  Staying organized is essential in a position that requires you to fulfill a range of timely responsibilities, such as scheduling appointments and taking patient vials.

Become a certified medical assistant

There are a couple of paths you can take to pursue your goal of becoming a CMA. 

The path you choose, however, may set you up for some certification options but not others. To help you decide the best one for you, the list below describes two prominent paths and their impact on obtaining certifications. 

Complete a medical assistant training program

To be eligible for the American Association of Medical Assistants' CMA certification, you need to complete a medical assistant training program accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. During the program, you'll gain academic and clinical training in areas such as:

  • Anatomy and physiology

  • Pathology

  • Medical terminology

  • Laboratory techniques

  • Administering medications

  • Clinical procedures

  • Diagnostic procedures

  • Medical laws and ethics

  • Medical coding

  • Pharmacology

  • First aid

  • Record keeping

  • Accounting

  • Computer applications

Gain work experience 

Other certifications, including the RMA, NCMA, and CCMA credentials, allow for candidates to become certified if they have the required number of years of experience working as a medical assistant or after receiving formal medical training from the US military.

Get certified 

After applying for certification, you’ll have to take and pass the certification exam. Common topics covered on tests include medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, diagnostic testing, pharmacology, clinical patient care, and medical laws and ethics. 

To maintain your certification, you’ll likely have to renew it every few years by paying a renewal fee and completing some requirements, such as finishing a set number of continuing education hours. 

Certified medical assistant career path

Working as a certified medical assistant can be deeply rewarding. It could also be a stepping stone to other medical roles. Medical assistants can go on to specialize in medical areas such as cardiology, pediatrics, or emergency medicine. Medical assistants may also choose to continue their education to become nurses or move into managerial, business, or teaching positions. 

Getting certified as a medical assistant can enhance your salary, make you more competitive, and build your skill set. Many employers look for candidates with credentials because it provides tangible proof of skills and knowledge. If you want to learn more about medical careers and the paths they can set you on, take a look at Northwestern University’s introductory course on medical professions on Coursera.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Medical Assistants, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/mobile/medical-assistants.htm." Accessed January 21, 2022.

2. American Association of Medical Assistants. "2021 CMA (AAMA)® Compensation and Benefits Report, https://www.aama-ntl.org/docs/default-source/about-the-profession-and-credential/cb-survey.pdf?sfvrsn=30." Accessed January 21, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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