What Is the Difference Between a Medical Assistant & a Certified Medical Assistant?

Health care professions are often technically challenging, and require a willingness to become familiar with the human body at a disconcertingly detailed level. Fortunately for the squeamish, there's also a high demand for staff whose skills lie in organization and administration. For example, doctors' offices and clinics rely heavily on the services of medical assistants. Job listings might list the job title as either "medical assistant" or "certified medical assistant," depending on the employer.

What Medical Assistants Do

    Medical assistants are the ultimate team players in an office or clinic, serving both administrative and patient-care roles as needed. In a given office you might be expected to organize the schedule of appointments, make reminder or follow-up calls to patients, maintain an inventory of medical supplies, and take care of patient files. In some offices, medical assistants also take care of billing and coding. Aside from those administrative duties, the MA can also perform certain patient-care functions. These include taking and recording the patient's vital signs, collecting blood or urine specimens for testing, administering medications as directed by the doctor, and performing initial interviews with new patients.

Becoming an MA

    Medical assistants aren't licensed, and aren't required to have any formal certification. It's still possible to enter the field without any formal training at all, learning entirely on the job. That's becoming rarer, with most physicians and clinics preferring to hire applicants who need minimal training and supervision. MAs typically graduate from certificate programs requiring one year or less. Some graduate from two-year associate degree programs, which often include other course material such as medical coding or basic medical office bookkeeping. Training programs vary widely in quality, so several organizations offer professional certifications as a way to demonstrate that your skills meet an objectively high standard.

AAMA Certification

    The American Association of Medical Assistants administers the Certified Medical Assistant credential. The AAMA's certification program is recognized by the American Medical Association, lending it a high degree of credibility. Candidates for certification must graduate from a formal training program accredited by the Commission on the Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, and must pass the AAMA's certification exam. The exam consists of 180 questions, divided between general, administrative and clinical subjects.

Other Certifications

    Although the AAMA's certification is arguably the "gold standard" in the field, it's not the only such credential. American Medical Technologists, which certifies a variety of clinical personnel, also offers a Registered Medical Assistant credential. Unlike the AAMA, AMT extends its certification to MAs who have trained on the job or in a military training program, as long as they can pass the certification exam. Similar credentials are available from the National Center for Competency Testing and the National Healthcareer Association. Before you apply for any of these credentials, it's prudent to canvass employers in your area and find out which ones are locally respected.

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