What does a Medical Assistant do?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Demand for medical assistants continues to grow, especially in the US where the nursing shortage has required many doctor’s offices to rely more heavily on medical assistants to perform basic tasks, like first contact with a patient, taking blood pressure or medical histories, and possibly performing some tests like ultrasounds or blood tests. What a medical assistant does may depend upon their qualifications, education, and the needs of a specific medical practice. They often have dual roles, performing both clerical work and working with patients.

Medical assistants are generally responsible for taking patients' medical histories.
Medical assistants are generally responsible for taking patients' medical histories.

The medical assistant may need to have certification or training. Some have associate degrees and others may have completed training programs through vocational colleges or even high schools. Others are not formally educated, but are trained by other office staff. State laws within each state govern the degree of education required for a medical assistant to perform certain tasks such as drawing blood. Additional training or certification may be required for those with the most hands-on contact with patients. Some medical assistants are licensed through the American Association of Medical Assistants, and become certified assistants or CMAs. Licensing may help to yield a larger salary in this frequently underpaid field.

Some medical assistants also take on secretarial duties.
Some medical assistants also take on secretarial duties.

What type of work you do may vary from office to office but a typical list of duties includes the following:

Patients often meet with a medical assistant prior to meeting with a doctor.
Patients often meet with a medical assistant prior to meeting with a doctor.

Front Office

Some medical assistant may draw blood from patients for testing.
Some medical assistant may draw blood from patients for testing.
  • Secretarial work
  • Contact with insurance companies
  • Answering phones and making appointments
  • Ordering supplies
  • Greeting patients
  • Pulling and filing patient charts
  • Calling in or faxing prescriptions
  • Converting charts to electronic charting
Medical assistants are often called upon to take a patient's blood pressure and other vital signs.
Medical assistants are often called upon to take a patient's blood pressure and other vital signs.

Back Office

Medical assistants may schedule appointments for a busy doctor's office.
Medical assistants may schedule appointments for a busy doctor's office.
  • Escorting patients to rooms
  • Weighing patients
  • Taking blood pressure
  • Taking medical histories
  • Listening or questioning patients on current health issues or the issue of concern for this visit
  • Assisting doctors with medical procedures
  • Giving injections or drawing blood
  • Clarifying doctor’s instructions with a patient

A front office employee may be called a medical assistant, and may not technically be one. They’re often gifted secretaries or receptionists, excellent at communicating with people, and good at reading medical documentation. Other times a medical assistant may perform both a share of secretarial work and back office duties. Sometimes doctor’s offices do not employ medical assistants but instead choose to employ nurses to perform all back office work.

Since the requirements for medical assisting vary, a patient may not always know the skills and level of training of the medical assistant. Patients should know that neither medical assistants nor nurses, unless they are nurse practitioners, can diagnose problems or prescribe medication. Since you are a paying customer at any doctor’s office, you can certainly ask, if you doubt the experience of a medical assistant for a doctor or nurse to perform any type of medical procedure, i.e., removing stitches, swabbing for strep throat, giving injections. This may not endear you to a particular assistant but it’s certainly within your rights to ask.

If you’d like to become a medical assistant, and you’re still in high school, consider studying general office skills, computer skills, and the sciences, particularly biology, chemistry, and anatomy. Though a necessary part of the medical team, recognize that the financial rewards for this field are not great. As of 2006, the average salary in this field was a scant $21,000 US Dollars (USD) per year. Of course salary varies and depends on experience. Medical assistants who are skilled at office work can end up managing doctor's offices, which usually corresponds to higher pay. Further, training in this field can be a great preliminary step if you’re interested in pursuing a career later in nursing or as a physician’s assistant.

In some cases, a medical assistant may be tasked with look at a patient's throat, and swabbing for strep infection.
In some cases, a medical assistant may be tasked with look at a patient's throat, and swabbing for strep infection.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I am an RN and the biggest dangerous misconception to Medical Assistants have of themselves is that they are somehow equal to an RN. Well, you are not and even thinking such is dangerous to patients. This is a profession created for MD's to provide cheaper labor while profiting more. Know your places, don't go outside your scope of practice which is very narrow.


I am currently in my third semester of college for medical assisting. To answer the question that many have asked concerning whether it is worth the cost and effort to become a medical assistant. That depends solely on you! If you have the desire and the drive necessary to become and be a great MA once you receive your degree, then I feel that it is very much worth it. If you do not care about helping others and your work ethic is not such to make medical assisting a career, my best advice would be to bow out gracefully now and do not waste the time of your instructors, peers, potential patients, potential employers, and most of all (yourself)!

Medical assisting is a great profession with continual room for growth for those who desire growth. For those who simply wish to obtain their degree and get a job where they can enjoy guaranteed family time, versus working overtime, there are many opportunities for this type of MA as well.

In closing, anyone asking questions on this forum concerning medical assisting, please take the time to do your research before choosing any one field of study. Do not bash one field of study over another. There are many different fields because there are many different patients with differing needs. If you cannot post here without bashing others, I can only imagine what you will be like as a member of the workforce in a physician's office.


I just enrolled in a medical assistant program for Unitech training Academy school and I'm so excited. I always did want to work in the medical field and take care of patients. I only have 11 months to finish up the program to become a certified medical assistant and then I want to become a certified midwife nurse and that will take about seven more years, so I'm just ready and excited.


Never pay the money to go to a career school. It is ridiculously overpriced. The community college near me offers the program in two semesters for about less than $3000 per semester, as opposed to the $15,000 dollar career schools.


I'm actually enrolled right now as a medical assistant and I'm worried I'll forget everything they are teaching me. Is it possible to forget everything? Will there be lots of math involved?


How does technology play a part in this job?


It's definitely worth it, plus it only takes about a year to complete.


I also want to become a medical assistant. I think it's a great career. The pay is good and you can learn many things about health and helping others, which is great.


I was a working as an RN (no longer working, but kept ADN license) and was an army medic, a CNA, vet assistant/tech, and can tell you I miss my days as a medic, which was mostly the equivalent to a medical assistant in the civilian world.

I miss/loved the clinic work. It was very hard to get as a RN. Although the pay is lower, I thought the job as a med assistant was better overall. I might try to go to school for being a certified medical assistant. The money doesn't matter as much as the job itself over the long haul.

I hated the nursing home and hospital, and the constant charting as a nurse, but absolutely loved the clinic as a med assistant. I knew I had made the wrong choice (RN) just after I graduated from nursing school, and met a medical assistant the first time at the VA. What do you think?


I became a medical assistant in 2002 and have only been able to get front office experience. How can I get additional skills if I don't have certification without going back to school?


Some of you all have some bad facts on MAs. There are colleges are out there that offer an associate degree in MA and they take the same classes the nursing students do, like anatomy physiology, microbiology, english, psychology, math, etc.

My school lets you do a medical assistant program, and then if you want to, you can apply directly to the nursing program and work as an MA until you graduate.

I don't see how it is a waste of money in student loans when you will take the same courses for the nursing program. Clinicals are what is different, plus you will be better prepared for the nursing program. Not everybody can pass the nursing program; many do not make it to graduation. It's a very challenging profession. If you take boards and get a degree, MAs will get paid more money than someone who just got a certificate or diploma.

Please do research on colleges that offer the right programs for success, not the ones that take your money. I go to South University and I love it. The MA degree is not a waste for me and I will enter the nursing program next as soon as I finish. I'd rather work as an MA than hold down a fast food job during nursing school. I make way more money here. It's $15 an hour and up. If you're not certified, it's $10 or less.


I start school in a few days for my MA and I can't wait. I'm so excited. It's a 16 month program with a degree in science and I eventually want to pursue a career as a nurse and my credits are completely transferable since an allied health program through community college is so competitive it's almost impossible to get in without some experience.

I hope I do a great job because I really want to. I think you guys are a lot of critics for saying the schools we go to are a business. That's my opinion.


I have been a medical assistant for over seven years. I've worked in oncology/hematology, pediatrics, rheumatology and am now currently in family practice (4.5 years at the same office).

I love what I do, but ultimately want to become a RN. However, I believe becoming an MA is definitely getting your foot in the door to health care which in return will help with school. It takes a special person and a very patient person to work in health care!


It is so sad to read a post from an office manager that MAn do nothing more than what a person off the street could do. I beg to differ. How many people off the street can do CPR, take vitals, know what they mean and how to convert them without a calculator, run an EKG, draw blood, give injections (IM,ID,subQ), know how to make an appointment, how to talk to and treat CPT and other employees in a medical practice, know how to set up an office, closing that same office, be able to use a prescription pad and use a CPT and ICD9 code manual and what to do with them, deal with insurance companies, take a temp, give an eye chart exam, and so much more!

It's sad to see people that have gotten a job that really don't understand their own job, and think others jobs are insignificant or beneath them. Our instructors are all in the medical field, most still both practicing and teaching, from phlebotomist to EKG techs and yes, even office managers. They all have warned us about people like you.

I am proud to be an MA and am going to get certified to become a CMA! And maybe I might even go onto nursing school. Problem is, LPNs are on their way out and RN don't do grunt work and that's not what I got into this field for. I went into this field and actually like to help people and be nice and care for others. I know a lot more than just the average person off the street. shame on you for downing my profession. It's a great profession to get into, without being waitlisted for years and I am able to work in just about any medical field I chose!


I am an office manager. If you want to be a nurse, go to nursing school. What I see our MA's do anyone off the street can do. A lot of practices will train you on the job, you just aren't certified unless you take that initiative upon yourself. Go to nursing school. It's totally different from being an MA.


In Malaysia, medical assistants are in great demand. They need to go for three years solid paramedical training which includes all the theory and the practical besides doing research to pass their final exam. Only those who successfully pass the exam will be given a Diploma in Medical Assistance.

After graduation, they will be posted under an emergency department, where they will be the one who runs the unit besides doctors and the nurses. Here, their main task will be screening and clerking patients, become the team leader for the Ambulance Resuscitation Team, doing all the dressing and wound suturing works, resuscitating patients and as a general shift in-charge.

Besides the ER, they will be specially training in different disciplines like ultrasound, anesthesia, public health, haemodialysis, psychiatric, ICU, and etc. This is my fifth year working as a medical assistant and I'm now doing sonograms in a cardiac center. i love my job.


I think this website also has a lot of great information about medical assistants.


a lot of people say that you don't need training to become a medical assistant. Is that actually true?


I have been an MA since 1982. I went to a career school, and have no regrets. I have always held positions in wonderful places to work, made an excellent salary, and have had excellent benefits.

These positions offered excellent opportunity for me to advance in this field, which I chose not to take advantage of, because being an MA was the level of responsibility I wanted for my life. No nights, weekends, and holidays off, which allowed me to be there for my family. I got the best of both worlds! I love being an MA still-all these years later!


it's not that bad to be a medical assistant and lately the pay rates have gone up, so i would say yes, it's worth it if you can find a job in today's economy. Good luck.


I work as a medical assistant out of Grand Rapids, MI, and I can tell you that there is a lot to the position. There is a lot to the position and it's highly coveted right now.


I have been a Medical Assistant for three years, and there are many MA's out there who settle and are lazy. I, however, make and have made around $18-20 per hour in specialty fields.

Yes, getting into an RN program, having this experience will help you get accepted into a nursing program as they are competitive to get into. most programs are very short, and give you job stability, at least in my experience. If you are not passionate about what you do, or what you want to do, of course you will not succeed.


What does a medical assistant do? Not much. Don't get paid much either. Hardly even a subsistence level income. Probably take you the rest of your life just to pay back educational loan. Typically about $18k to get an associates degree in this field. Hardly worth it.


All medical assisting schools I've seen have only been at career institutes. They have solid 11 month programs, and usually cost around $20,000 after tuition, books, and lab fees. This of course does not include any financial aid/grants you could get.

Really, it's a waste of money if you can't get it at a typical community college (which offer about $80 per credit hour). If you pay the full cost of $20,000, you might as well just go to nursing school.

Medical assisting schooling has become just a business. It's crap.


I took a one year course to become a medical assistant at my community college. If your school is accredited you can go on to become certified by taking a test through a nationally recognized association (there are two.)

The certification is an attempt to get the career recognized and attract good people. My teachers were all medical assistants who took the profession very seriously and were not "out for the money." This is not an avenue to become a nurse or physician and would be a waste of time and money you could spend pursuing the career you want.

If you like helping people, want to work in a medical office with a variety of duties, want a flexible career with benefits, this might be for you.


do you need SSN to become a Medical Assistant?


How will this help me in the future? Because i'm an MA already.


Well I once was a caregiver but decided to shine away from it and then I was going to do Office Administration/Medical concentration at my two year college but for some reason and I guess I have a calling I'm meant to do something in the medical field so I'm changing it to Medical Assisting but that's as close to being a nurse as I want to be without being a nurse.


if i fallow this career path, will it be easy for me to become a doctor or will it not make a difference at all?

and really how much does a medical assistant get paid?


if i were to take this course and for some reason i would like to better my education in the medical field will it be easy or should i just go for one thing? will i be able to do this and another major in criminal justice or will i have to stay just in the medical field?


Its great to be a medical assistant. Just be careful of the school you choose and how much you pay on interest. Don't forget these schools are not to help you but for profit only and the end of the day it's a business.


is it worth it being a medical assistant or dental assistant?


if i'm going to take the medical assisting course how long will these take?


If I follow this career path, will it be easier for me to become an RN or will it not make a difference at all?

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