What Is a Medical Assistant?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 17, 2023
3 min read

Medical assistants are health care professionals who assist doctors in clinics, medical offices, and hospitals. They may show you to the exam room, take your vital signs, and check your height and weight. Medical assistants will ask about your symptoms and health concerns, and pass that information on to your doctor. 

Even though medical assistants work directly with doctors, they can’t give medical advice to patients. Their duties are limited to collecting information and preparing the doctor and patient for the medical visit.

A medical assistant’s duties vary, depending on the office or clinic. Most of their tasks involve administrative work or clinical work.

You may meet a medical assistant at the front desk of a hospital or medical office, or they may be the person who comes in after your exam to draw blood

Administrative duties 

A medical assistant might do administrative tasks like:

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

Clinical duties

They also may do clinical work like:

  • Showing patients to the exam room
  • Recording symptoms and updating medical histories
  • Helping patients prepare to see the doctor
  • Collecting and preparing laboratory samples or performing basic lab tests
  • Assisting doctors during physical exams
  • Discussing prescription and dietary changes with patients 
  • Dispensing medications  
  • Handling prescription refill requests
  • Removing stitches or changing wound dressings 
  • Drawing blood for lab tests 
  • Doing electrocardiograms (heart test) and other medical tests  

A medical assistant is a jack of all trades, streamlining important tasks to help the clinic run more efficiently.

Medical assistants must be trained in the field. Programs range from 10 months to 2 years and are offered through vocational schools, universities, and junior colleges. Students usually choose accredited (approved) programs to make sure they get the best training. 

Programs are divided into three segments:

Administrative. This portion of the training focuses on handling day-to-day activities in a medical office. Students learn the best ways to communicate with patients, how to file medical charts, and how to code and complete insurance forms. 

Clinical. Clinical education focuses on what happens in the exam room with patients. In addition to checking vital signs, drawing blood, updating medical histories, and verifying prescriptions, a medical assistant is often the first point of contact for patients. This requires skills like empathy to better connect with patients and put them at ease. 

Externship. Medical assistants put their new skills to the test at approved health care facilities. 

Medical assistants earn diplomas, certificates, or an associate’s degree after training. 

Certification process 

Medical assistants don’t need a certification to work in the health care field, although many will take an exam to expand their career options. Some states require credentials in order to perform specific tasks. A certification is a way to demonstrate advanced comprehension and expertise. 

Nationally recognized certification exams include the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Exam and the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) Exam. 

Medical assistant roles in different states 

Some states, like California, require medical assistants to take special training before giving injections or medication. Other states choose to list what medical assistants cannot do in a clinical setting. 

The majority of medical assistants work in doctor’s offices, outpatient care centers, and hospitals. Facilities like dental offices, nursing homes, and physical therapy clinics also employ medical assistants to run offices 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 United States. They will need more preventive care from doctors and other medical specialists. Those facilities will need help to handle more patients, which means more opportunities for medical assistants.