This is a post about becoming a certified medical assistant. A certified medical assistant designation means that you have taken a test and are recognized by a US board to be competent practicing medical assisting. I wasn’t able to find a good, unbiased resource online so I decided to write my own.
Why am I writing about becoming a medical assistant? I am looking for alternative careers outside of practicing medicine as a physician. I have some great options available and want to explore each one.
A medical assistant is considered an allied health professional. They aren’t doctors, nurses, or pharmacists. The term certified medical assistant (CMA) and medical assistant can be used interchangeably. Other examples of allied health professionals are:
- ortho tech
- dental hygienist
- ophthalmologic technicians
- pharmacy technicians
Becoming A Certified Medical Assistant
There are only 2 criteria for becoming a certified medical assistant:
- take an accredited medical assistant course
- pass the certified medical assistant exam
The difference between an MA and a CMA is obviously the certification. It’s not mandatory to be certified by a governing body but it’s sort of the standard and most competitive employers will demand this certification when hiring medical assistants.
Just by going through a medical assistant course you can get a job as a medical assistant. By taking and passing the exam you can then also become certified.
Becoming a certified medical assistant involves taking the medical assisting course as well as passing the exam offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants.
As we know from our medical assistants, they will perform a lot of different tasks. For healthcare providers who work in large medical groups, you may not be familiar with how much medical assistants do for an office.
In larger medical groups their responsibilities are often limited since they assume mostly the role of shuffling patients around and performing vital signs.
Their work can include and isn’t limited to:
- front office staffing
- making patient appointments
- arranging patient transfers
- billing and coding
- communicating with outside facilities
- electronic health records work
- getting patients checked in
- performing vitals
- taking patient histories
- performing EKG’s
- wound care
- perform point-of-care tests such as swabs
Limitations Of A Medical Assistant
Becoming a certified medical assistant means that you are regulated by a governing body and therefore limited to certain clinical activities. There are very few things that a certified medical assistant cannot do and the field is certainly evolving, as I’ll address below.
For the most part the rules are the same from state to state. However, each state has the right to regulate the medical assistant role uniquely.
Here is a brief list of things a medical assistant isn’t allowed to do:
- perform conscious sedation
- access a patient artery
- give a clinical opinion to a patient
- provide interpretation of lab results
- draw blood from an IV line
- give medication through a port-a-cath
Contrary to popular belief, they are allowed to give IM/SC injections but should be fully trained for this in order to avoid common pitfalls and successfully handle/recognize any complications.
As to starting an IV, it’s debatable. It’s unlikely that a medical assistant would have to do that but it might be state dependent. The states and boards are quite lenient on this matter as long as competency can be established.
As for foley catheters, that’s another thing that’s rarely farmed out to medical assistants. Adjusting a foley catheter or changing bags would be okay, however, based on my research it’s the kind of work done ideally by someone with a higher level of training and certification.
Medical assistants are allowed to read-off lab and imaging results to patients, verbatim. Again, no interpretation of information should be done by a medical assistant.
Patient: “So if the x-ray reads normal, does that mean I don’t have cancer?”
MA: “Sorry, I can’t answer that, I can only tell you that the x-ray reads normal.”
The CMA Certification Exam
The exam isn’t mandatory, as I mentioned previously. After taking a medical assistant course you can immediately start working as a medical assistant. The exam only adds a certification and makes an MA → CMA.
There are both private courses which are quite expensive and public courses as offered through community colleges for becoming a certified medical assistant.
The Exam For becoming a certified medical assistant
The exam consists of 200 multiple choice questions and it’s given in four 40-minute sections. The clinical topics make up about 50% of the test and the administrative and “general” topics make up the rest.
The test covers the following specific topics:
- medical law
- risk management
- medical terminology
- patient navigation
- medical business practices
- scheduling appointments
- practice finances, anatomy
- infectious control
- patient intake
- specimen handling
- diagnostic testing
- emergency management
- Which of the following is the term for an abnormally low white blood cell count?
- An area of dead myocardial tissue is best described by which of the following terms?
- What does the term menarche refer to?
- Which of the following is the term that refers to soft connective tissue that attaches to bones at the joints?
In order to recertify when becoming a certified medical assistant, the exam has to be taken again every 5 years. It’s the same process as for physicians. You pay the exam fee, sit for it, and hopefully pass it.
The cost of the exam is much lower than a medical exam. It was under $200 from what I could find.
Apparently another way to recertify is to meet CME requirements. It was hard to understand from the CMA website. But that could mean that you don’t have to repeat the exam again in 5 years.
Medical Assistant Income
The hourly income is listed at somewhere around $13/hour to $17/hour. That’s absurdly low from what my MA friends report to me.
I know MA’s who are making $25/hour. Becoming a certified medical assistant isn’t only about the money but anything less than $20/hour might be a waste of time for someone in my position.
I had to hit up a few of my friends who are medical assistants to the get the real numbers. For whatever reason I find that healthcare workers aren’t always accurately represented on websites such as Glassdoor.
For example, as a family medicine doctor practicing urgent care medicine I was easily making $300,000/year. But Glassdoor lists the high end of an urgent care doctor’s salary at $230,000.
Applying To A Program
My local community college has a medical assisting course available – a 9-month course. I won’t need any prerequisites since I already meet them with my bachelor degree in science.
Without my bachelor degree I would need to the following prerequisites for becoming a certified medical assistant:
- english composition
- introductory algebra (can test out)
- math literacy (can test out)
- introduction to human anatomy and physiology
- medical terminology (can test out)
In my case, the only class I’ll need as a prereq is medical terminology. I contacted the director of the MA program at my local college and she said that she would let me test out of it.
The medical terminology is 60 questions of medical terms – I won’t need to study for it and it won’t cost me anything to take the test.
Each community college quarter (3 months) has about 8 units worth of classes. And each unit costs $104. So that would be $832 per quarter.
Then there is the credentialing exam and a few other fees. In total it would be cost less than $6,000 for becoming a certified medical assistant.
Becoming a certified medical assistant involves a full-time course schedule for about 9 months. It’s mostly day-time from what I can see. However, some community colleges and private institutions will offer evening courses for those who have kids or work.
Addressing Questions of Concern
My friends and family have expressed a fair bit of concern regarding this possible move so I’ll post some of the common questions and concerns and address them.
I am definitely interested in careers completely outside of medicine. However, I still really enjoy being in the clinical setting but don’t enjoy the risk or responsibility. There are many other great options besides being an MA such as Health Information Management but in this post I wanted to focus on becoming a certified medical assistant.
Wouldn’t you be going backwards in life by becoming a certified medical assistant?
I don’t see it that way. Not sure if being a physician is a more progressive career than being an MA.
You’ll make less money, why not just do a little medicine on the side.
The risk of practicing medicine and the grind of it isn’t adequately compensated by my standards. And even though I’ll make less money, my income needs are also lower.
Why not become an RN because you’ll make more money and there are more jobs?
I don’t identify well with RN’s. Let’s just say that my personality type would clash a bit with your average RN. And I don’t care much for the extra education and the extra money spent becoming an RN just to do inpatient work.
Why MA, why not an xray tech or something else?
I don’t have to study for any of the tests to be an MA. It’s only a 9 month course. And even better, I can later become a teacher at a school for MA’s. I would also have a much higher chance of landing a good MA job based on my credentials.