Interested in becoming a medical assistant but have some questions? This definitive guide to medical assisting answers many of the questions you have. It defines what a medical assistant is and what they do both clerically and clinically. This guide identifies the skills and attributes that are needed to become a successful medical assistant. It also identifies the different specialties and career options that are available to experienced medical assistants. This guide will help you gain knowledge about medical assistant communication skills, appointment scheduling and telephone etiquette. It will teach you what a medical assistant does in a hospital. This guide explains the specialized responsibilities a medical assistant will perform including EKG exams and phlebotomy.
This guide also looks into the job outlook for medical assistants, how long it takes to become a medical assistant, and how to become a medical assistant. Also, you can learn how to choose a medical assistant program.
What is a Medical Assistant?
According to the American Association of Medical Assistants, Medical assistants are health professionals that work alongside physicians, nurses and other medical professionals in medical offices, hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics and ambulatory care facilities.
Medical assistants are cross-trained to perform both clerical and clinical duties. They can be the first person that a new patient is exposed to when they enter a physician’s office. It is important for them to make a good first impression.
Some clerical duties a medical assistant is responsible for include:
- Using computer applications to manage documents, appointments, physician’s schedules and electronic medical records
- Answering phone calls from patients, laboratories and other physician’s offices
- Greeting patients and escorting them to the exam room
- Updating and filing patient medical records, both paper and electronic
- Coding, filling out and processing insurance billing and claims forms
- Scheduling appointments in person and over the phone
- Managing basic bookkeeping for the physician’s office
Some clinical duties a medical assistant is responsible for include:
- Taking medical histories to determine patient risk factors
- Measuring vital signs including temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and respiration rate
- Explaining diagnostic and treatment procedures to patients
- Preparing patients for procedures and exams
- Assisting the physician during exams with medical instruments and supplies
- Collecting, preparing and delivering specimens to in-house and outside laboratories
- Performing basic laboratory tests including phlebotomy and EKG
- Instructing and educating patients about medication and nutrition
- Transmitting prescription refills as directed by the physician
- Removing sutures and changing dressings
There are many skills that contribute to the professionalism of medical assistants. Medical assistants should work on being loyal, dependable, courteous, initiative driven, flexible, credible, confidential, and optimistic.
Skill #1: Loyalty – medical assistants should be devoted to the success of the medical practice and hold the belief that being a medical assistant at the medical practice is in their best interest. Loyalty should be reciprocal and if a medical practice is offering equal pay for equal work, the medical assistant will feel like the medical practice is doing its best for them as well. Medical assistants can go one step further and be committed to the medical practice if they support the employers’ strategy and objectives.
Skill #2: Dependability – a dependable medical assistant not only shows up for work on time but also produces consistent work. A medical assistant must follow through when the physician gives an order. The dependable medical assistant will also be counted on and given more responsibility.
Skill #3: Courtesy – the medical assistant should be friendly and kind to patients at the medical practice. Attention should be given to the patient as they arrive at the medical facility. The medical assistant should offer a warm smile and friendly attitude to the arriving patient.
Skill #4: Initiative – the medical assistant should be self-motivated and ambitious. Medical assistants that show initiative have a take charge attitude. The medical assistant should observe a need and make themselves available, rather than wait for a supervisor to direct them to an area that needs attention.
Skill #5: Flexibility – the medical assistant should have the willingness and ability to respond to changing situations and expectations. Flexible medical assistants will modify their approach to tasks based on the unique demands of each situation, especially in an emergency. In a medical facility the patient comes first, and every medical assistant should lend a hand where ever they are needed.
Skill #6: Credibility – trust is a vital component of the medical assistant and patient relationship, and the credibility of the medical assistant should be strong. The information that is given to patients must be accurate as the patient may see medical assistants as an agent of the physician.
Skill #7: Confidentiality – Patients are entitled to privacy under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Confidentiality extends to the home and other environments outside of the medical office. The medical assistant is prohibited from discussing confidential patient information with family and friends. Consequences will be enacted if the medical assistant breaches patient privacy.
Skill #8: Optimism – a medical assistant should have a positive attitude, be kind and courteous to others, not jump to conclusions, give others the benefit of the doubt, and ultimately be optimistic.
The medical assistant will need specific attributes to be a professional while working with colleagues and dealing with patients. These attributes include teamwork, time management, prioritization and goal setting.
Attribute #1: Teamwork – medical staff must work together for the benefit of the patient. The medical assistant should accept the tasks given to them by their supervisor unless they are illegal, unethical, or place patients in danger.
Attribute #2: Time Management – the medical assistant should use their time efficiently and concentrate on the most important duties first. They should make a schedule, prioritizing tasks and allowing for emergencies along the way. The key to time management is prioritizing.
Attribute #3: Prioritizing – a form of triage should be used by the medical assistant to sort tasks into the must, should and could categories. Of course, the medical assistant needs to attend to emergencies, but they also must anticipate what will do the most good and in what order those tasks should be completed to benefit the most.
Attribute #4: Setting Goals – if the medical assistant doesn’t set goals, they will never know when the goals have been achieved. Setting goals can also help the medical assistant accomplish what they want or need to do each day, giving them more motivation to achieve those goals.
There are many different medical assistant specialties that are available outside of family practice and primary care physician’s offices. If the medical assistant has an interest in a specific field of medicine, they may be able to move into a specialty after graduating from a career college and obtaining some experience as a medical assistant. The medical assistant specialties include cardiology, dermatology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, geriatrics, neurology, obstetrics and gynecology, ophthalmology, orthopedics, otolaryngology, pediatrics, pulmonary medicine, and urology.
The medical assistant typically takes vital signs before the patient sees the physician. There is a standard measurement for each vital sign. Taking vital signs is important to create a baseline for future physical exams and at times when the patient is sick or ill. Vital signs include blood pressure, pulse rate, respiration rate and temperature. Also included are height and weight as supplemental influencers on a patient’s condition or symptoms.
For a medical assistant, improving communication skills with patients involves both verbal and non-verbal communication. As a medical assistant, it should be the goal to use communication that creates a comfortable atmosphere for patients. Even bad news should be communicated with some positivity. A medical assistant shouldn’t mumble, speak sharply or avoid eye contact. The medical assistant should look the patient in the eyes when speaking to them and listen carefully. The medical assistant should also be aware of their nonverbal communication, giving a positive and open signal to patients and colleagues.
Having a positive attitude will create a positive atmosphere. A positive atmosphere will help medical assistants provide positive communication to patients. When communicating with co-workers, medical assistants should have respect for one another and be empathetic to each other. The medical assistant will also keep a positive atmosphere by respecting the chain of command. Going directly to a supervisor, when there are disagreements or problems communicating can create a strain on relationships. By talking out issues first with co-workers, situations can be diffused and not escalate unnecessarily.
Positive communication can affect the relationship a medical assistant has with their supervisor. The medical assistant should keep their supervisor informed to promote trust and respect. They will also want to show initiative to be proactive and assist the supervisor before being asked. The medical assistant shouldn’t jump to conclusions in reaction to what a supervisor does or says. They shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and clarify the situation.
When scheduling appointments, the medical assistant must keep in mind the patient's needs, the physician's preferences, whether facilities are available, and the proper amount of time needed during each type of appointment. The medical assistant must find a balance between these different variables to have a smooth flow of patients and not allow the patient to wait too long in the reception area to see the physician.
There are special circumstances a medical assistant must consider when scheduling appointments. Some patients may be late, appointments may need to be canceled and rescheduled, there may be an emergency, or a physician may request a same day referral.
The telephone is often the first interaction a patient will have with a medical facility. When a patient calls the medical practice, they expect the medical assistant's undivided attention and they don't want to be kept waiting.
The medical assistant doesn't know who is on the other end, so all calls must be kept professional. The call may be from an established patient looking to make an appointment or a new patient that is contacting the medical facility for the first time. The call could be from other physicians, laboratories or pharmacies about patient referrals and prescriptions. The medical assistant must turn away from patients at their desk to give the caller their full attention.
The medical assistant should use an appropriate telephone voice using proper diction, pitch and clarity. When answering the telephone or conducting outgoing calls, the medical assistant should be pleasant and courteous.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) confidentiality must be at the forefront of everything the medical assistant does, especially when talking on the telephone with patients or other medical providers.
The medical assistant is an important part of the medical team that works at a hospital. They are responsible for greeting the patient, escorting them to the hospital room and preparing the patient for exam and diagnosis. The medical assistant will record the patient’s health history, take vital signs and make the patient comfortable while they wait for the physician. While the physician talks with the patient, the medical assistant may take transcription.
The medical assistant will manage the patient’s medical records, assist the physician with diagnostics, perform additional diagnostics ordered by the physician, collect and prepare patient specimens, and explain treatment procedures to the patient. The medical assistant can also act as a patient advocate. Medical assistants also sterilize and disinfect medical instruments and surgical areas and can assist the physician with minor surgery.
Lastly, the medical assistant will help discharge the patient from the hospital. The medical assistant is the one constant that the patient has when they visit a hospital, and it is the medical assistant’s responsibility to make sure the patient is comfortable and safe while they are diagnosed and treated at the hospital.
An EKG exam is used to assess the heart and blood vessels. The medical assistant is responsible for obtaining a good-quality EKG without avoidable artifacts. An artifact is an abnormal signal that does not reflect electrical activity of the heart during the cardiac cycle. The medical assistant must make sure that the patient doesn’t move, there are no mechanical problems with the EKG machine, and the proper technique is used during the EKG exam.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, phlebotomists draw blood for tests, transfusions, and blood donations. Phlebotomists typically do the following:
- Enter patient and medical insurance information into medical records
- Check in and escort patients to a blood sample collection room
- Collect blood from the patient
- Verify a patient’s identity to ensure proper labeling of the blood sample
- Label the collected blood for testing
- Assemble, sterilize and maintain medical instruments
What is the Job Outlook for Medical Assistants?
Employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 29 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Advances in medicine and medical technology are increasing the life expectancy of the population and creating a growing need for additional medical assistants. Physicians are relying more and more on medical assistants to perform clerical and basic clinical duties, so the physician is free to perform more complex care for patients.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Medical Assistant?
A medical assistant program can take as little as 12 months to complete as a full-time student.
How Do I Become a Medical Assistant?
To become a medical assistant, a student must complete a Medical Assisting program from a vocational school or technical school. These programs usually lead to a certificate or diploma. Some vocational schools offer a program that awards an associate’s degree. All programs have classroom and laboratory portions that include lessons in anatomy and medical terminology.
Most medical assistants will train in a vocational school or community college certificate program. Make sure the vocational school or community college you attend is flexible, offers career services and financial aid.
Flexible – Find a vocational school or community college that meets your needs whether it is day or evening classes.
Career Services – The vocational school or community college should have a Career Services team dedicated to help graduates and alumni that are looking for a career. Students should learn job search techniques, resume writing, interviewing skills and specific career-related strategies.
Financial Aid – The vocational school or community college should help you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to find out if you are eligible for any grants, loans or scholarships to help pay for tuition costs.
Ready to start a Medical Assistant Program? Mildred Elley offers a Medical Assistant Program that prepares students for entry-level positions in physician’s offices, clinics, hospitals and other medical facilities as a medical assistant. The Medical Assistant Program helps develop the skills necessary to excel in the healthcare industry.
Contact us today to learn more about becoming a medical assistant.