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Medical Assistants

Medical assistants help physicians examine and treat patients and perform routine tasks needed to keep the office running smoothly.

The duties of a medical assistant may be administrative, clinical, or both. The size of the office determines the scope of the job; those in small offices typically handle both clerical and clinical duties, whereas in offices with a sizable staff, medical assistants usually specialize in either the office or patient care aspects of the job.

Clinical duties most commonly include: Recording patients' height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure; obtaining medical histories; performing basic laboratory tests; preparing patients for examination or treatment; assisting the physician in examining patients; and sterilizing instruments. Other clinical duties may be instructing patients about medication and self-treatment, drawing blood, preparing patients for X-ray, taking EKG's, and applying dressings.

Medical assistants also may arrange instruments and equipment in the examining room; check office and laboratory supplies; and maintain the waiting, consulting, and examination rooms in a neat and orderly condition.

Medical assistants perform a variety of administrative duties. They may answer the telephone, greet patients and other callers, record and file patient data and medical records, fill out medical reports and insurance forms, handle correspondence, schedule appointments, and arrange for hospital admission and laboratory services. Along with other office duties, they may transcribe dictation and handle the bookkeeping and billing. Increasingly, medical assistants perform routine clerical tasks--such as record keeping and billing--on automated office equipment, primarily word processors and personal computers (microcomputers).

Medical secretaries and medical receptionists also perform administrative tasks in medical offices, but, unlike medical assistants, they rarely have clinical duties.

Medical assistants employed in hospitals or outpatient facilities, like those who work in practitioners' offices, perform a variety of tasks. For instance, they may assist physicians in emergency departments by providing direct care to patients. In addition, they may process paperwork without the direct supervision of a physician, for example, in the admissions or medical records departments.

Medical assistants known as Ophthalmic medical assistants help ophthalmologists to care for eyes. They take medical histories, use precision instruments to administer diagnostic tests, measure eyes, and test eye functioning. At times, they provide technical assistance to ophthalmologists during eye surgery. These workers change eye dressings, administer eye drops or oral medications, and teach patients how to insert, remove, and care for contact lenses. Sometimes, they may help ophthalmologists dispense eyeglasses and contact lenses. Among their other duties are caring for and maintaining optical and surgical instruments.

Working Conditions

Medical assistants work in a well-lighted, clean environment. They need to be careful when performing clinical work, such as sterilizing equipment or doing laboratory tests.


Medical assistants held about 156,000 jobs in 1990. Three out of five were employed in physicians' offices, and about 1 in 5 worked in offices of other health practitioners such as optometrists, podiatrists, and chiropractors. Slightly more than 1 in 10 worked in hospitals.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Medical assistants often are trained on the job. Applicants usually need a high school diploma or the equivalent. High school courses in mathematics, health, biology, typing, bookkeeping, computers, and office practices are helpful. Many medical assistants receive their training in formal programs offered in some high schools and, at the postsecondary level, by vocational-technical institutes, trade schools, community and junior colleges, and universities. Community college and university programs in medical assisting usually last 2 years and lead to an associate degree; the other programs take up to 1 year to complete and graduates receive a diploma or certificate.

Two agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit programs in medical assisting: The Committee on Allied Health Education and Accreditation (CAHEA) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). The 165 medical assisting and 8 ophthalmic medical assisting programs approved by CAHEA graduated about 6,300 students in 1990. The ABHES accredits 134 medical assisting programs, and graduates numbered about 7,100 in 1990. The curriculum in these programs consists of courses in biology, anatomy and physiology, typing, transcription, accounting, records and recordkeeping, and medical terminology. Many students receive instruction in computer skills as they apply to the medical office. Students also receive supervised clinical experience and learn laboratory techniques, use of medical equipment, clinical procedures, and first-aid techniques. In addition, students receive instruction in administrative and office practices including communications skills, human relations, and medical law and ethics.

There are no licensing requirements for medical assistants. Gaining credentials, which is voluntary, consists of certification offered by professional organizations upon successful completion of an examination. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) awards the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential, the American Medical Technologists awards the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) credential, and the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology awards the Ophthalmic Medical Assistant credential at three levels: certified Ophthalmic Assistant, Certified Ophthalmic Technician, and Certified Ophthalmic Technologist.

For medical assistants, advancement often means leaving the occupation, for career lines are short. Clinical health occupations such as radiologic technologist or registered nurse require additional clinical education, whereas administrative and managerial jobs may not. Medical assistants who demonstrate leadership abilities may, for example, be promoted to the position of office manager. (The trend toward group practice, clinics, freestanding emergency centers, and other alternatives to solo practice is likely to heighten demand for office managers.) Medical assistants with computer skills are qualified for a wide variety of research and management support positions.

A neat, well-groomed appearance and a courteous, pleasant manner are necessary traits for medical assistants, who have a great deal of contact with the public. Communication skills are especially important. Medical assistants must not only be good at putting patients at ease, but be good listeners and interpret a physician's instructions correctly the first time they are given. Conscientiousness, a sense of responsibility, and respect for the confidential nature of medical information are all necessary qualities in a medical assistant. Clinical duties require a reasonable level of manual dexterity and visual acuity. Medical assistants must be able to deal with people who are under stress.

Job Outlook

Employment of medical assistants is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000 due to anticipated expansion of the health services industry.

Employment growth will be spurred by the increased medical needs of an aging population, growth in the number of heath practitioners, more diagnostic testing, and the increased volume and complexity of paperwork. Most job openings, however, will result from the need to replace experienced assistants who leave the occupation.

In view of the preference of many physicians for trained personnel, job prospects should be very good for medical assistants with formal training, experience, or both. Employers view formal certification favorably. Medical assistants with word processing and computer skills will have an advantage.


The earnings of medical assistants vary widely. Pay levels are governed chiefly by the assistant's qualifications and experience, the size and location of the physician's practice, and the number of hours worked. According to a survey by the Committee on Allied Health Education and Accreditation, the average starting salary for graduates of the medical assistant programs they accredit was about $13,800 a year in 1990.

Related Occupations

Workers in other health occupations that entail a combination of administrative and clinical duties include orthoptists, pharmacy helpers, dental assistants, occupation therapy aides, and physical therapist aides.

Sources of Additional Information

Information about career opportunities, CAHEA-accredited educational programs in medical assisting, and requirements for the Certified Medical Assistant exam is available from:

The American Association of Medical Assistants, 20 North Wacker Dr., Suite 1575, Chicago, Ill. 60606.

Information about career opportunities and requirements for becoming a Registered Medical Assistant is available from:

American Medical Technologists, Registered Medical Assistants, 710 Higgins Rd., Park Ridge, Ill. 60068.

For a list of ABHES-accredited educational programs in medical assisting write:

Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, Oak Manor Office, 29089 U.S. 20 West, Elkhart, Ind. 46514.

Information about career opportunities, training programs, and requirements to become a Certified Ophthalmic Assistant is available from:

Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology, 1812 N. St. Paul Rd., St. Paul, Minn. 55109.


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