Medical Assistants Look to Bright Future

Reception, accounting, lab work, minor office surgery...medical assistants do it all.

These multi-skilled employees are invaluable to a doctor's office. Medical assistants are able to do front-office administrative tasks as well as back-office clinical procedures. That makes them a two-for-one deal.

"The medical assistant's versatility is a great benefit to employers who are trying to find the best staffing mix for a busy clinic or medical office," says Donald Balasa. He is the executive director and legal counsel of the American Association of Medical Assistants.

Balasa says more health care is being delivered in clinics and physicians' offices (known as outpatient settings) as opposed to hospitals (inpatient settings). Why? It's cheaper.

"There have been reductions in health-care funding from both government and non-government sources," he says. "As a result, health-care providers are choosing to provide as much medical care as possible in outpatient settings."

And medical assistants are the only allied health professionals specifically educated to work in outpatient settings.

Graduates from the medical office assistant program at Jean Clark's college have very high employment rates. This has been the case for the 20 years that Clark has been there. She is an instructor in the program.

"We do follow-ups with our students six months after they've finished our program. Between 85 and 95 percent of our students have jobs at that time," says Clark.

"Often the remaining percentage have decided to do something else, such as nursing, or have had babies and so on."

Clark has never had a male student. This is a female-dominated field.

"There are constant openings in the field because women take maternity leaves, move with their husbands when they are transferred for work and leave positions to be filled," she says. This helps her students find jobs quickly.

Although medical assisting has been around for over 50 years, some workers still feel an identity crisis.

"Much of the public, as well as even some health-care professionals, still call us nurses," says Barbara Dahl. She coordinates the medical assisting program at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington.

"The major difference between nursing and medical assisting is the nurse is trained for the hospital, while the medical assistant is trained for the office. Many of the skills and much of the education is very similar, but there are many distinct differences, too."

Sometimes there is also confusion between medical assistants and physician assistants (PAs). PAs examine, diagnose and treat patients under the direct supervision of a physician.

Medical assistants take patient histories, collect and prepare laboratory specimens, draw blood, call prescriptions into the pharmacy, instruct patients about prescription drug effects and sterilize medical equipment.

"Medical assistants who are more clinically minded can pursue additional studies to become physician assistants, laboratory technologists and radiology technologists, for example," says Balasa.

"Medical assistants who are more administratively or managerially minded can pursue insurance coding and billing, medical transcription and office management."

Once you have the essential training, it's all about choices.

"CMAs can choose to work in orthopedics, pediatrics, cardiology, family practice and many other specialties," says Dahl. "Many CMAs move into management positions within those areas as well."

So what's the catch? Many medical assistants find it in their paychecks.

"Depending on where you live, the pay is currently not as much as other health-care professions. However, there recently has been an increase in the average earnings by those in the profession," says Robyn Gohsman. She is the medical assisting department head at the Medical Careers Institute in Newport News, Virginia.

Despite the pay scale, Gohsman strongly recommends young people consider the career.

"Many of my students are those who want a career in the medical field, but are unsure which direction they want to pursue. They are planning on using medical assisting as a stepping-stone. After they have worked a while as a medical assistant, they intend to continue on to become nurses, physician's assistants and physicians.

"Medical assisting offers them the opportunity to 'test the waters' before determining which avenue they want to pursue."


American Association of Medical Assistants
An organization promoting the professional identity of medical assistants

Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
A list of accredited educational programs in medical assisting

Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology
Information about career opportunities, training programs, and the certified ophthalmic assistant exam

American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants
Information about careers for podiatric assistants

Medical Assistant Pharmacology
All the need-to-know about safe and effective drug therapy

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