What Is a Medical Assistant?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on March 28, 2024
5 min read

Medical assistants are health care professionals who help doctors in clinics, medical offices, and hospitals. They may make your appointment, take your vital signs, and draw your blood. A medical assistant may also ask about your symptoms and health concerns, recording that information in your medical files for your doctor.

Even though medical assistants work directly with doctors, they can’t give medical advice to patients. Their duties are limited to giving support to other medical staff.

A medical assistant is a medical jack-of-all-trades who helps organize important tasks so the office or clinic runs more efficiently. Their duties vary, but most of their work tasks involve administrative and basic clinical work. For instance, you may talk to a medical assistant at the front desk of a hospital or medical office when you make an appointment. Or, you may have your blood drawn by one at your doctor's office.

Medical assistants vs. nurses

Medical assistants and nurses both give patient care and support other medical staff in offices, clinics, and hospitals. However, nurses are more focused on patient care than medical assistants. For instance, a nurse may focus on running medical tests and showing you how to take your medicine. On the other hand, a medical assistant may focus on scheduling appointments and maintaining your records.

Because nurses give more complex, skilled, and hands-on care to patients, they need more training. For instance, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) generally need an associate's (2-year) degree, and registered nurses (RNs) need a bachelor's (4-year) degree and then must pass a state licensing exam to practice. In contrast, medical assistants generally only need a diploma (9-12 months) or an associate's degree in a medical assistant program. Medical assistants don't need a state license to work, but they may choose to get a certificate.

Medical assistant administrative duties

These may include:

  • Greeting patients
  • Answering phones and scheduling appointments
  • Filing and updating medical records
  • Coding and completing insurance forms
  • Arranging for a hospital visit or lab test
  • Handling billing, bookkeeping, and general office mail

Medical assistant clinical duties

Their clinical duties may include:

  • Showing patients to the exam room
  • Recording symptoms and updating medical histories
  • Helping patients get ready to see the doctor
  • Assisting doctors during physical exams
  • Discussing prescriptions as well as dietary and lifestyle changes with patients
  • Dispensing medications
  • Submitting prescription refill requests
  • Removing stitches or changing wound dressings
  • Drawing blood for lab tests
  • Performing basic lab tests
  • Doing medical tests such as EKG (a heart test)

In the U.S., your training usually begins when you enroll in a medical assistant program approved by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). You can attend a nonaccredited school, too. But if you do, you will need to get approval before you can take your certification exam.

Vocational schools, universities, and junior colleges offer these programs, and they generally take about 9-12 months (for a diploma) or 2 years (for an associate's degree) to complete. Whether you choose to get a diploma or associate's degree depends on your career goals and the amount of time you can dedicate to school. If you plan to extend your education at some point, it may be a good option to get your associate's degree.

Medical assistant training is divided into three segments: administrative, clinical, and externship training.


These programs usually give you training in clinical procedures, record keeping, and medical billing so you can help run the day-to-day activities in a medical office or clinic. Students learn the best ways to communicate with patients, how to file medical charts, and how to code and complete insurance forms. A medical assistant is often the first point of contact for patients. So, it's also important for you to connect with patients and put them at ease.


In your medical assistant program, you will take classes that cover laboratory skills, anatomy and physiology, and medical terminology. You will also get hands-on training on how to draw blood, give medicines, and take vital signs. All this training will help you do the clinical part of your job.


During this part of your training, you will work with more experienced medical assistants in a real office or clinic. This lets you get some real-world experience before you take your certificate test and look for a job.

Medical assistant certification process

You don't have to get your certification to work as a medical assistant. But getting your certificate may make it easier to get a job, allow you to take on more responsibility, and make more money. You will need a certificate in most states to perform specific tasks, especially clinical tasks.

Once you complete your medical assistant program and externship, you are ready to take a certificate exam. If you decide to get a certificate, there are five certification exams you can choose to take, including:

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) through the American Association of Medical Assistants
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) or Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) through the National Healthcareer Association
  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) through the National Center for Competency Testing
  • Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) through the American Medical Technologists

Medical assistant roles in different states 

The federal government and each state have scope-of-practice laws that define what medical assistants can and cannot do in a clinical setting. The scope of practice for medical assistants varies by state. Some states, such as California, require medical assistants to take special training before giving injections or medication. It's a good idea to stay up-to-date on what the scope of practice is for medical assistants in your state.

Most medical assistants work in doctor’s offices, outpatient care centers, and hospitals. You may also work at places such as dental offices, nursing homes, and physical therapy clinics to help run the office and improve patient care.

You’re likely to see more of them in the coming years. Baby boomers (those born between the 1940s and 1960s) make up a large portion of the aging population in the U.S. They will need more preventive care from doctors and other medical specialists, who will need help providing care to these people. That means more opportunities for people who want to work in the field. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the field will grow by 14% between 2022 and 2032. This is a much faster growth rate than that of many other jobs.

Medical assistants support other medical staff with administrative and clinical tasks in doctor's offices, clinics, hospitals, and other facilities. You generally need about 9 months to 2 years of school and some practical training with patients in a real-life clinic to qualify for this job. Many people also choose to take a certification exam. This can make it easier to get a job, do more complex tasks, and make more money. In the U.S., the job market for medical assistants is growing faster than that for many other jobs.