Medical assistants help physicians in offices, hospitals, and clinics. They keep medical records, help examine and treat patients, and perform routine office duties to allow physicians to spend their time working directly with patients. Medical assistants are vitally important to the smooth and efficient operation of medical offices.
Nature of the Work
Depending on the size of the office, medical assistants may perform clerical or clinical duties, or both. The larger the office, the greater the chance that the assistant will specialize in one type of work.
In their clinical duties, medical assistants help physicians by preparing patients for examination or treatment. They may check and record a patient's blood pressure, pulse, temperature, height, and weight. Medical assistants often ask patients questions about their medical histories and record the answers in the patient's file. In the examining room the medical assistant may be responsible for arranging medical instruments and handing them to the physician as requested during the examination. Medical assistants may prepare patients for X-rays and laboratory examinations, as well as administer electrocardiograms. They may apply dressings, draw blood, and give injections. Medical assistants also may give patients instructions about taking medications, watching their diet, or restricting their activities before laboratory tests or surgery In addition, medical assistants may collect specimens such as throat cultures for laboratory tests and may be responsible for sterilizing examining room instruments and equipment.
Medical assistants are responsible for preparing examining rooms for patients and keeping examining and waiting rooms clean and orderly. After each examination, they straighten the examination room and dispose of used linens and medical supplies. Sometimes medical assistants keep track of office and medical supply inventories and order necessary supplies. They may deal with pharmaceutical and medical supply company representatives when ordering supplies.
At other times medical assistants may perform a wide range of administrative tasks. Medical secretaries and medical receptionists also perform administrative activities in medical offices, but these workers are distinguished from medical assistants by the fact that they rarely perform clinical functions. The administrative and clerical tasks that medical assistants may complete include typing case histories and operation reports; keeping office files, X-rays, and other medical records up-to-date; keeping the office's financial records; preparing and sending bills and receiving payments; and transcribing dictation from the physician. Assistants may also answer the telephone, greet patients, fill out insurance forms, schedule appointments, take care of correspondence, and arrange for patients to be admitted to the hospital. Most medical assistants use word processors and computers for most recordkeeping tasks.
Some medical assistants work in ophthalmologists' offices, where their clinical duties involve helping with eye exams and treatments. They use special equipment to test and measure patients' eyes and check for disease. They administer eye drops and dressings and teach patients how to insert and care for contact lenses. They may maintain surgical instruments and help physicians during eye surgery. Other medical assistants work as optometric assistants, who may be required to prepare patients for examination and assist them in eyewear selection. Others work as chiropractor assistants, whose duties may include treatment and examination of patients' muscular and skeletal problems.
Medical assistants usually need a high school diploma, but in many cases they receive their specific training on the job. High school courses in the sciences, especially biology, are helpful to the prospective medical assistant, as are courses in algebra, English, bookkeeping, typing, computers, and office practices.
Formal training for medical assistants is available at many trade schools, community and junior colleges, and universities. College programs generally award an associate's degree and take two years to complete. Other programs can last as long as a year and award a diploma or certificate. Prior to enrolling in any school program, students should check its curriculum and verify its accreditation.
Schools for medical assistants may be accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, which has approved more than 200 medical and ophthalmic programs, or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, which accredits over 150 medical assisting programs. Students in these programs do coursework in biology, anatomy, physiology, and medical termino1og~ as well as typing, transcribing, shorthand, recordkeeping, and computer skills. Perhaps most important, these programs provide supervised, hands-on clinical experience in which students learn laboratory techniques, first-aid procedures, proper use of medical equipment, and clinical procedures. They also learn about administrative duties and procedures in medical offices and receive training in interpersonal communications and medical ethics.
Medical assistants generally do not need be licensed. However, they may voluntarily take examinations for credentials awarded by certain professional organizations. The registered medical assistant (RMA) credential is awarded by American Medical Technologists and the American Registry of Medical Assistants, and the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) awards a credential for certified medical assistant (CMA). Ophthalmic assistants can be certified at three levels by the Joint Commission on Allied Health Person-nel in Ophthalmology: certified ophthalmic assistant, certified ophthalmic technician, and certified ophthalmic technologist. Medical assistants must be able to interact with patients and other medical personnel, and they must be able to follow detailed directions. In addition, they must be dependable and compassionate and have the desire to help people. Medical assistants must also respect patients privacy by keeping medical information confidential. Overall, medical assistants who help patients feel at ease in the doctor's office and have good communications skifis and a desire to serve should do well in this job.
Opportunities for Experience & Exploration
Students in post-high school medical assistant programs will have the chance to explore the field through the supervised clinical experience required by the various programs. Others may wish to gain additional experience by volunteering at hospitals, nursing homes, or clinics to get a feel for the work involved in a medical environment. People interested in this field may want to talk with the medical assistants in their own or other local physicians' offices to find out more about the work they do.
Methods of Entering
Students enrolled in college or other post-high school medical assistant programs may learn of available positions through their school placement offices. High school guidance counselors may have information about positions for students about to graduate. Newspaper want ads and state employment offices are other good places to look for leads. Workers may also wish to call local physicians' offices to find out about unadvertised openings.
To advance, many medical assistants must change occupations. Medical assistants may be able to move into managerial or administrative positions without further education, but moving into a more advanced clinical position such as nursing requires more education. As more and more clinics and group practices open, more office managers will be needed, and these are positions that well-qualified, experienced medical assistants maybe able to fill. As with most occupations, today's job market gives medical assistants with computer skills more opportunities for advance-ment.
In 1996, about 225,000 medical assistants worked in physicians' offices, clinics, hospitals, health maintenance organizations, and other medical facilities. Over 70 percent work in private doctors' offices. Another 10 percent work in optometrists' and chiropractors' offices and other health care facilities. The ratio of medical assistant personnel to physicians is about seven to one.
The employment outlook for medical assistants is expected to be exceptionally good through the year 2006. Most openings will arise to replace workers who leave their jobs, but many will be the result of a predicted surge in the number of physicians' offices and outpatient care facilities. Technological advances and the growing number of elderly Americans who need medical treatment is also a factor in this increased demand for health services. In addition, new and more complex paperwork for medical insurance, malpractice insurance
, government programs, and other purposes will create a growing need for assistants in medical offices.
Experienced and formally trained medical assistants are preferred by many physicians, so these workers have the best employment outlook. Word-processing skills, other computer skills, and formal certification are all definite assets.
The earnings of medical assistants vary widely, depending on experience, skill level, and location. According to a 1997 Staff Salary Survey, published by the Health Care Group, the average starting salary for graduates of the medical assistant programs they accredit is about $14,500. With experience, medical assistants may eventually earn an average of $24,793 a year. Earnings are higher in the Northeast and the West as compared to other regions of the United States.