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Medical Assistant Career Paths

Medical assisting is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States, not only because of the wide variety of jobs within the career field but because of the need for quality medical assistants to work with physicians in treating patients. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the field of medical assisting is projected to grow 29% between 2016 and 2026. This is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Becoming a medical assistant is one of the fastest ways to enter the healthcare field. It can also prepare you for more specialized and advanced careers.

To find out more about this fulfilling career, read on to learn about types of careers, how to become a medical assistant, and salary potential.

What Is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants are the backbone of doctor offices and medical clinics. You may remember your last visit to the doctor: someone probably checked you in and processed your payment; another person may have escorted you to examination room, measured your blood pressure and other vitals, and questioned you about your medical history. These people were most likely medical assistants.

The roles of medical assistants are varied. Some perform all the duties necessary to run an office and prepare patients for an exam. Some focus more on the clinical side of medical assisting, working mostly with patients; while others focus mostly on the administrative side. In addition, there are a number of related careers that MAs can pursue with some additional training and experience.

Medical Assistant Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of May 2018, the mean annual wage for medical assistants was $34,540.

Salary can depend on experience, training, work setting, and location. In May 2018 the work settings with the highest salaries for medical assistants were:

Place of Work Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
Medical and diagnostic laboratories $18.36 $38,190
Outpatient care centers $17.95 $37,340
General medical and surgical Hospitals $17.34 $36,070
Offices of physicians $16.50 $34,320

With regard to location, the five top-paying states as of May 2018 were:

State Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
Alaska $21.87 $45,490
District of Columbia $20.20 $42,010
Washington $19.88 $41,340
Minnesota $19.38 $40,320
Massachusetts $19.36 $40,270

How to Become a Medical Assistant

There are two main pathways for becoming a medical assistant: completing a certificate/diploma program or getting an associate degree. Which path you choose may depend on when you want to start your career, cost, and the type of industry you want to work in.

Although some employers don’t require any specific education, if you want to advance in the field and be more employable, obtaining a certificate or associate degree is an important step.

No matter which program you decide to pursue, make sure it is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs(CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

Certificate Programs

Certificate programs typically take 9 to 12 months of full-time study. They are available through technical schools, junior colleges, colleges, and online. While different schools may have differences in their curricula, you can expect to study anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, pharmacology, and patient care.

Associate Degree Programs

Even though it requires an additional year of study, getting an associate degree is an option you should consider. Not only will you generally enjoy a higher pay rate, having an associate degree makes it easier for you to continue your education later. Having an associate degree can also give you an edge when applying for a highly desirable job.

Associate degree programs include many of the same courses as can be found in certificate programs, but these degree programs delve deeper and extend your learning. They typically include an internship/externship working in a health care facility, where you apply your skills and knowledge and get hands-on experience.

Online Medical Assisting Programs

You can find online programs for both medical assisting certificates and associate degrees. Online programs are usually more convenient than on-campus programs and may be a good option for people who are working or caring for a family. In addition, according to a study done for the U.S. Department of Education, students who do part or all of their coursework online perform slightly better than students who do all their work in a face to face classroom setting.

Although you can take most courses online, you may need to work in-person at a clinic or other facility in order to compete an internship.

Medical Assistant Careers

There are generally two medical assistant paths you can take: clinical medical assisting and administrative health assisting. Many MAs focus on both, others prefer to narrow their focus.

Clinical Medical Assistant

Clinical medical assistants work face to face with patients. They work alongside medical personnel to provide support in a wide variety of patient care capacities. Physicians rely on them to help keep things moving smoothly.

Typical duties include:

  • Preparing exam rooms for patients: This may involve sterilizing equipment, making sure the necessary equipment is available, and ensuring that the room is neat and functional.
  • Checking in patients: Medical assistants often escort the patient to the exam room and perform initial tasks to prepare the doctor for the exam. These might include taking and recording vital signs, interviewing the patient about their symptoms, and going over a patient’s current medications and other important medical history.
  • Performing laboratory tests: In some offices MAs perform routine laboratory tests, such as collecting blood, tissue, or other laboratory specimens; in other offices they might also prepare the specimens for testing.
  • Administering medications: Medical assistants can administer medications under the supervision of a physician.
  • Performing more specialized testing: Depending on the place they work, MAs might perform procedures such as electrocardiograms and lung function tests.
  • Providing patient education about treatment procedures, medication, diet, and more

Administrative Medical Assistant

Administrative medical assistants play a significant role in the operation of medical offices. Whether it’s in a private physician’s office, the office of a specialty group, an outpatient clinic, lab, or hospital, these are the people on the front lines who keep things running smoothly.

Responsibilities for administrative medical assistants often include these tasks:

  • Scheduling and coordinating appointments
  • Answering patient questions and providing good customer service
  • Updating and maintaining patient health records
  • Assisting patients with paperwork
  • Handling patient billing
  • Maintaining office equipment and supplies
  • Knowing and staying up-to-date with regulations and changes in medical and insurance legislation
  • Assuring compliance with procedures
  • Processing insurance claims and serving as a patient liaison with insurance companies
  • Collaborating with physicians and nursing staff to schedule tests, procedures, or referral appointments
  • Mastering and using the electronic health records (EHRs) system used by their employer

Administrative medical assistants may find advancement opportunities in the medical field by acting as an office manager, a records manager, a billing specialist, an insurance specialist, or an executive secretary, a transcription supervisor.

Related Medical Assisting Careers

As you consider your career in medical assisting, you should know that there are a number of related careers that you can pursue. Although most take additional training and/or experience, having a diploma or degree in medical assisting can be a stepping stone to some of these specialized careers.

Following are brief summaries of each career. Note that all salaries are as of May 2018.

Medical Billing and Coding Specialist

A billing and coding specialist analyzes and codes patient records in order to bill insurance providers.


  • Postsecondary certificate program in medical billing and coding (1 year)
  • Associate degree program in medical billing and coding (2 years)


  • Reading and analyzing patient records to determine the correct codes
  • Conferring with physicians and medical personnel to ensure accuracy
  • Tracking patient data over multiple visits
  • Completing charge sheets to insurance companies for reimbursement

Median Salary: $40,350

Dental Assistant

As the name implies, dental assistants work with dentists to increase the efficiency and quality of dental examinations and procedures.


  • Postsecondary certificate in dental assisting (CDA) program (1 year)
  • Associate degree in dental assisting (2 years)


  • Preparing treatment rooms and sterilizing dental instruments
  • Aiding the dentist during procedures
  • Documenting dental care services by charting in patient records
  • Making appointments for patients
  • Communicating with insurance companies

Median Salary: $38,660

Patient Care Technician

A patient care technician is responsible for preparing patients for an examination by a physician.


  • Complete a postsecondary program to obtain a CPCT/A or certified patient care technician/assistant certificate (1 year) and pass an exam
  • Complete an associate degreefrom an accredited patient care technician or medical assistant program (2 years)


  • Working closely with patients, in conjunction with nurses
  • Assisting patients with their basic needs, such as eating, drinking, transportation, and personal hygiene
  • Monitoring vital signs
  • Providing emotional support to patients and families

Median Salary: $28,540

Sterile Processing Technician

Sterile processing technicians clean and sterilize surgical instruments and other medical tools so that they can be reused for other patients.



  • Sterilizing surgical equipment
  • Preparing instruments for use during medical procedures
  • Stocking and maintaining surgical tools and supplies

Median Salary: $36,240

Ophthalmology and Optometry Assistant

In order to keep an eye doctor’s office running smoothly, ophthalmology and optometry assistants are needed to perform initial testing and maintain records.


  • Technical diploma program in optometric technology (1 year)


  • Taking patient measurements such as eye size, vertex distance, papillary distance, and temple length
  • Coordinating frames and eye measurements to the optical prescription
  • Preparing work orders
  • Maintaining records of client prescriptions, payments, and work orders sent to the laboratory
  • Preparing patients for tests and procedures

Median Salary: $36,690

Surgical Technician

The primary role of a surgical technician is to make sure a surgery goes smoothly — both by doing the necessary preparation and assisting in basic procedures.


  • CAAHEP-approved program for surgical technicians (1 year or less)
  • Pass exam for certified surgical technologist (CST) credential
  • Associate degree in surgical technology (2 years)


  • Preparing and maintaining surgical supplies and equipment
  • Measuring medications, hemostatic agents, and irrigation solutions during procedures
  • Assisting during surgery by sponging, suctioning, holding retractors, cutting sutures, and manipulating camera

Median Salary: $47,300

Lab Technician

A lab technician performs a wide variety of tasks in order to assist scientists in their research and testing.


  • Postsecondary program for lab technicians (6-12 months)
  • Associate degree in clinical laboratory science (2 years)
  • Pass an exam for certification


  • Collecting and testing blood, tissue, body fluids, teeth, chemical compounds, or biological specimens
  • Receiving and analyzing such samples
  • Executing laboratory testing according to standard procedures

Median Salary: $52,330

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Patients in hospitals and other facilities rely on certified nursing assistants to take care of the patient’s most basic needs. CNAs also are an important line of communication between a patient and other healthcare personnel.


  • Complete a state-approved education program and pass an exam (4 to 16 weeks)
  • Although an associate degree is not generally required, having this degree will increase your options


  • Assisting patients with basic living activities
  • Listening to patients’ health concerns, recording them accurately, and clearly communicating information to nurses
  • Monitoring patient vital signs
  • Attending to patient issues and problems

Median Salary: $28,530

Pharmacy Technician

Pharmacy technicians work alongside pharmacists to process and prepare prescriptions.


  • Diploma or certificate program for pharmacy technicians (1 year or less)
  • Pharmacy technician associate degree (2 years)


  • Taking prescriptions
  • Labeling and sorting medications
  • Liaising between pharmacists and the public
  • Measuring medication

Median Salary: $32,700