Medical Assistants: What They Do and How to Become One

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn more about the medical assistant profession, including the schooling and skills it takes to get a job to decide if it’s the right career for you.

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

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

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

If you're interested in a healthcare career but feel like nursing or medical school are better fits than this, 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 healthcare 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 essential information you’ll want to know to work to be a medical assistant.

What is a medical assistant?

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

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

  • Answering phones, emails, and messages from online portals 

  • Handling billing and insurance 

  • Maintaining patient 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 

Depending on the 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.

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. The following steps can help guide you to your new career. 

1. Obtain general certificates of education and A-level qualifications.

If you want to become a medical assistant, then you'll need to finish high school. Many employers looking for medical assistants require at least several GCSEs in maths and English to enter an apprenticeship or a formal qualification programme.   

2. Work on your workplace skills. 

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

  • Organised 

  • Detail-oriented 

  • Ability to work on teams

  • Empathetic 

  • Good at both verbal and written communication 

  • Able to work under pressure 

3. Brush up on your computer skills.

Administrative tasks are part of the job for many medical assistants. That means you'll maintain records, handle bookkeeping, handle billing, and schedule appointments on a computer. Many doctors’ offices also use online portals to communicate with their patients. 

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

4. Find accredited medical assistant programmes. 

Once you've decided you want to become a medical assistant, you'll need to research and apply to accredited medical assistant programmes. These programmes are offered both online and in-person through vocational schools, community colleges, technical schools, and, in some cases, 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.

5. Complete an apprenticeship or internship.  

Many medical assistant programs require you to complete an apprenticeship or 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.

6. Get certified.  

While certification isn't always necessary, some 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 certifications to consider include the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) certification, offered by Stream Pharmaceutical UK, and the International Medical Assistant Certification from Specialty Certified Medical Assistant (SCMA), which also provides medical assistants with 13 specialty certification options.

You’ll also find other available certifications. Check with your school to find out what it recommends, or look at job descriptions in your area to see if one appears as a preference over others. 

7. Network before you begin your job search. 

Before you start searching the Internet for a job, try networking first. This means reaching out to instructors, professors, classmates, and people you know personally with medical careers. The place where you completed your internship or externship has a job opening. 

8. Apply to medical facilities—both big and small. 

Though extensive hospital networks might be more recognisable, smaller operations like local doctors’ offices also offer ample opportunities. A smaller setting is more likely to involve you in several different types of tasks, which can be a great way to build experience.

9. Prepare for the interview.  

Prepare for interviews by anticipating questions. This allows you to come up with some good potential answers and have them ready to go when you meet face-to-face with the interviewer. Here are some questions you might encounter in a medical assistant interview:  

  • What experience do you have with medical settings? 

  • 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 attending training programmes or degree programmes 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

Medical assistants must be comfortable grasping medical terminology and common healthcare problems to best assist in healthcare settings.

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. You can also develop a better understanding of clinical terms and abbreviations used by healthcare providers through the University of Pittsburgh Clinical Terminology for International and US Students.

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