Medical Assistants: 10 Steps to Becoming One

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Medical assistants provide patient care and perform administrative tasks in doctors' offices and clinics. If you're looking for a health care career that doesn't require you to attend medical school, then you might consider becoming a medical assistant.

[Featured image] A medical assistant enters patient information on a touch screen monitor in a hospital.

Medical assistants help health care professionals, such as physicians, provide patient care and ensure that medical facilities operate smoothly.

If you're interested in a health care career but nursing or medical school doesn't feel like quite the right fit, then a job as a medical assistant could be right for you. Through a mix of administrative work and direct patient care, you'll help keep medical facilities operating efficiently, so doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals can do their jobs.  

Read on to find guidance on what medical assistants do, what you’ll need to do to become one, and other key information for becoming a medical assistant.

What is a medical assistant?

Medical assistants are health care professionals responsible for the smooth operation of medical facilities and assisting physicians with patient care. They work with doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals to ensure patients receive the care they need. 

What does a medical assistant do?

Medical assistants may have dozens of duties to perform each day. Depending on where you work, they might include: 

  • Greeting patients who come in for appointments

  • Assisting nurses with clinical duties

  • Answering phones, emails, and messages from online portals 

  • Handling billing and insurance 

  • Maintaining medical records

  • Scheduling appointments and procedures 

  • Taking down a patient's medical history or list of symptoms 

  • Cleaning and restocking exam rooms 

  • Measuring and recording vital signs, like pulse, temperature, and blood pressure

  • Explaining new medications to patients 

  • Drawing blood or creating IV access

  • Performing basic diagnostic tests, like EKGs

  • Caring for wounds

  • Removing sutures 

  • Helping doctors and nurses with medical exams 

  • Collecting and preparing laboratory specimens or performing laboratory tests on patients

Depending on the state regulations where you live and the preference of the facility where you work, your tasks may focus solely on either administrative work or clinical work.

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An overview of key health care concepts from Stanford University's Introduction to Healthcare course.

10 steps to becoming a medical assistant 

Being a medical assistant can be a rewarding career for those looking to help others without spending years in medical school. If you’re interested in becoming a medical assistant, then the following steps can help guide you to your new career. 

1. Obtain a high school diploma or GED.

If you want to become a medical assistant, then you'll need to finish high school or get your GED. Typically, these qualifications are the minimum required to get into most medical assistant programs.  

2. Work on your workplace skills. 

Medical careers are all about helping others in need. In order to be a good medical assistant, you'll likely need the following skills in order to help both patients and other health care professionals:  

  • Organized 

  • Detail-oriented 

  • Ability to work on teams

  • Empathetic 

  • Good at both verbal and written communication 

  • Able to work under pressure 

Read more: What Are Job Skills and Why Do They Matter?

3. Brush up on your computer skills.

Administrative tasks are a part of the job for many medical assistants. That means you'll be maintaining records, handling bookkeeping, taking care of billing, and scheduling appointments on a computer. Many doctor’s offices also use online portals to communicate with their patients. 

For this reason, you'll likely need to have basic computer skills, like familiarity with Microsoft Office.

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4. Find accredited medical assistant programs. 

Once you've decided you want to become a medical assistant, you'll need to research and apply to accredited medical assistant programs. These programs are offered both online and in-person through vocational schools, community colleges, technical schools, and, in some cases, colleges and universities. They typically take a year or two to complete, and they'll cover a variety of topics, ranging from anatomy and physiology to first aid. 

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5. Complete an internship.

Many medical assistant programs require you to complete an internship before you receive your diploma. Even if yours doesn't, you might consider completing one anyway to gain hands-on experience in a clinical setting, so you can practice tasks like taking vital signs and performing minor diagnostic tests. Internships or externships can also make you more competitive as a job applicant.

Read more: 7 Internship Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

6. Get certified.  

While certification isn't always necessary, some states and employers do require it, and it can lead to a higher salary.

You can become certified by fulfilling certification requirements, which often require exams. Some common certifications include the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) certification, offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants, and the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) certification offered by the American Medical Technologists. Some positions may also require you to be CPR-certified.

There are many other certifications available. Check with your school to find out what it recommends, or take a look at job descriptions in your area to see if one is preferred over others. 

Read more: What Is a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)?

7. Network before you begin your job search. 

Before you start pouring over the internet to find a job, try networking first. This means reaching out to instructors, professors, classmates, and people you know personally with medical careers. You may even find that the clinic where you completed your internship has a job opening. 

Read more: What Is an Informational Interview? And How to Make the Most of It

8. Apply to big and small health care facilities. 

Though big hospital networks might be more recognizable, don’t forget to apply to smaller operations, like a local doctor's office. A smaller setting is more likely to make you responsible for several different types of tasks, which can be a great way to build experience. Decide which one works best for you, but be open to unexpected opportunities.

9. Prepare for the interview.  

Prepare for interviews by practicing your answers to typical questions. You'll think of good potential answers and be ready when you are face-to-face with the interviewer. Here are some questions you might encounter in a medical assistant interview:  

  • What experience do you have in a medical setting? 

  • Why did you choose to become a medical assistant? 

  • How do you handle stressful situations? 

  • What would you do if you encountered a difficult patient? 

  • Why did you choose this office or clinic?

  • Are you certified in first aid and CPR? 

  • What computer or medical software experience do you have?  

10. Consider continuing your education. 

Many people choose to work as medical assistants while they attend training programs or degree programs for other medical careers, like paramedics, nurses, and doctors. Even if you want to remain a medical assistant, you can keep up with the ever-changing medical world by taking courses in your field.  

Next steps

Explore a career in medicine by taking an online course from a leading university, such as Duke University's Introductory Human Physiology or the University of Pennsylvania's Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us. Or, develop a better understanding of clinical terms and abbreviations used by health care providers through the University of Pittsburgh Clinical Terminology for International and U.S. Students.

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Article sources

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

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