On the surface, medical assistants have pretty straightforward jobs: they perform administrative and basic clinical duties in physicians' offices, hospitals and other health care settings. But they may gain more (and more complicated) responsibilities given the changing landscape of American health care, where the number of elderly and very ill patients is rising and the use of digital medical records is increasing. These changes also mean that medical assistants will likely have excellent job prospects in the next several years.
What they do:
Medical assistants perform a wide variety of tasks depending on type and size of the health care facility where they work. Some medical assistants' jobs are basically secretarial: answering phones, greeting patients, setting appointments and filling out insurance forms, for example.
Others work primarily on the clinical side, taking patient medical histories, drawing blood or giving instructions about medications. Especially in smaller practices, medical assistants do a little of both, switching back and forth between administrative and clinical duties as needed.
They may report to team leaders or department heads that supervise their work, or, in smaller practices, directly to physicians (though their duties differ from those of physician assistants, who have more advanced responsibilities for patient care under the supervision of doctors).
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 the majority of medical assistants -- 62 percent -- worked in physicians' offices. Another 13 percent worked in hospitals, 11 percent worked for chiropractors, optometrists or other health practitioners, and the rest were scattered across other health care industries.
What they need:
A high school diploma is the minimum requirement for a medical assistant. Many employers provide on-the-job training, although some who hope to enter the field choose one- or two-year post-secondary programs at vocational or technical schools. Their classes usually cover secretarial skills like basic computer processing and record-keeping, as well as basic laboratory procedures. Professional certification, though not required, is sometimes looked on favorably by employers. Certifying bodies include the American Association of Medical Assistants and the Association of Medical Technologists.
What they earn:
Medical assistants nationally earn an average $38,057, according to CBSalary.com. The 25th percentile earns $30,176 and the 75th percentile earns $45,167.
Employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 34 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than average, the BLS reports. And the number of new jobs created will be significant: 163,000 over the projections decade. Job prospects will be excellent across the board, although the medical assistants with formal training and certification will have the best opportunities, according to the BLS Occupational Employment Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition.
As in many health care fields, job growth for medical assistants will be brisk due to the aging population and the increasing prevalence of conditions like obesity and diabetes. Job growth will also be driven to a degree by the changing structure of the health care industry. Many health care facilities will require support staff in greater numbers, especially those who can work in both clerical and clinical areas.
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