a medical assistant helps a patient.

Reviewed by Theresa Sinkevich, RMA, Instructor, and Academic Partnership Coordinator for Penn Foster’s Allied Health programs.

If you’re looking for an in-demand career that offers plenty of job opportunities and the chance to make a difference, becoming a medical assistant could be the right path for you. In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about becoming a medical assistant, how much medical assistants make, and what the job is like. Click the links below to jump to a specific section or read the whole blog.

Medical assistant duties

Medical assistants support physicians by helping with patients, both directly and indirectly. They’ll take patient vital signs, as well as help with clinical and administrative tasks. The typical medical assistant duties include

Administrative duties

  • Welcoming patients
  • Answering phones
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Updating patient medical records
  • Communicating with hospitals, other physician’s offices, insurance companies, and other healthcare providers
  • Handling office mail

Clinical duties

  • Taking medical histories from patients
  • Assisting the doctor during exams
  • Collecting and preparing lab specimens
  • Explaining treatments and procedures to patients
  • Performing basic laboratory tests
  • Phlebotomy
  • Wound care
  • Preparing patients for exams
  • Educating patients on medication

Where do medical assistants work?

Medical assistants can work in a variety of healthcare settings, but most commonly find jobs in physician’s offices, hospitals, clinics, urgent care facilities, and outpatient care centers. Your daily job duties can vary based on where you work. Your work schedule can also change based on the needs of your employer.

Medical assistants working in a doctor’s office often have the steadiest schedules, working when the office is open. Generally, that means a work schedule from Monday through Friday, 8am to 5pm. You may work earlier or later depending on your doctor’s office hours.

Those medical assistants who work in an urgent care or clinic can have steady hours as well, though they may find themselves working longer hours, nights, and weekends.

Medical assistants who work in hospitals will have the most varied schedule, working whenever they’re needed. That can mean overnight shifts, early mornings, weekends, and holidays.

CMA vs medical assistant

Certified Medical Assistants (CMAs), Registered Medical Assistants (RMAs), and Certified Clinical Medical Assistants (CCMAs) do the same job as a medical assistant, but they have recognized industry credentials. To become a CCMA, you need to graduate from an accredited medical assistant program and sit for an exam like the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) certification offered by the National Healthcareer Association (NHA).

To become an RMA, you need to graduate from an accredited program, have at least 5 years of work experience, or have military medical training to qualify to sit for the American Medical Technologists (AMT) Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) Certification. The differences between a CMA and a medical assistant

Types of Medical Assistant Certifications

CMA (Certified Medical Assistant) RMA (Registered Medical Assistant) MA (Medical Assistant) CCMA (Certified Clinical Medical Assistant)
Has certification Yes Yes No Yes
Can work in hospitals, clinics, urgent care facilities, physician’s office Yes Yes Yes Yes
Must complete accredited training program Yes No No Yes*
Works directly with patients Yes Yes Yes Yes
Performs lab work Yes Yes Yes Yes
Has administrative duties Yes Yes Yes Yes
Offered by American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) American Medical Technologists (AMT) n/a National Healthcare Association (NHA)
How long certification lasts 5 years (60 continuing education credits) 3 years (30 continuing education credits) n/a 2 years (10 continuing educating credits)
Exam cost $125-$250 $135 n/a $155*
How many times can you retake the test? Up to 3 times Up to 4 times n/a Up to 3 times

**CCMA prep materials and exam are included with tuition in Penn Foster's Medical Assistant Diploma and Medical Assistant Degree programs
*or military medical program or one year medical assisting experience

What is it like being a CMA or medical assistant?

Being a CMA or medical assistant comes with duties and responsibilities that vary depending on where you work. A day in the life of a medical assistant who works in a doctor’s office usually starts in the morning, around 7 or 8am depending on when the office opens to patients.

To start the day, a medical assistant will help open the office, check the patient appointments for the day, pull patient records and charts for those appointments, and make sure any necessary supplies are stocked.

Once the office is open, medical assistants may help check in patients for appointments, call patients with appointment reminders, or help with scheduling. They’ll also take patients back to exam rooms, check their vitals, update their medical records, and take down information about why the patient is visiting. For most of the day, depending on how busy it is, they’ll do this several times.

At the end of the day, medical assistants will help with organizing files, following up with any last-minute calls and requests, and ensuring the office is clean and ready for the next day.

Do medical assistants need to be certified?

No, medical assistants aren’t required to be certified to work in the field. However, most employers prefer to hire certified or registered medical assistants. Being certified shows potential employers in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and healthcare facilities that you have the necessary knowledge to be an asset to the team. It also has a positive impact on your salary! Certified medical assistants can earn as much as $10,000 more per year than non-certified medical assistants.

What is the hardest thing about being a medical assistant?

The hardest thing about being a medical assistant is often dealing with emergencies that can arise and working with difficult patients. However, if you enjoy what you do, the challenges are worth it – and don’t come up as often as you’d think.

What is the most important role of a medical assistant?

Medical assistants have many important tasks, but one of the most important roles is in updating patient information. Patient medical records are vital documents that ensure that they receive accurate and efficient care. Without accurate, up-to-date information, a patient may not receive the right treatment or medication. A medical assistant is a patient’s advocate, someone who makes sure patient needs are understood and met by everyone on the healthcare team

What is the difference between a medical assistant and a medical office administrator?

Medical office administrators can work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and clinics, however medical office administrators are usually the first point of contact for patients. Unlike medical assistants, administrators do not care for patients. Instead, they manage the front desk, handle electronic billing and medical records, and perform office managerial duties.

What can a nurse do that a medical assistant can't?

Medical assistants and nurses play different roles within a healthcare team. Medical assistants complete both administrative and clinical tasks, often under the supervision of a doctor. Nurses, on the other hand, can perform a wider range of duties including administering medications, performing routine procedures like catheterization, and educating patients.

Medical assistant salary

The median medical assistant salary was $37,190 per year as of 2021. What you can make as a medical assistant can vary depending on your experience, where you work, and whether or not you’re certified. Becoming a certified medical assistant can allow you to earn more and take on more responsibilities on the job.

Medical Assistant Salary by State

State Annual Mean Wage Annual Hourly Wage
Alaska $46,390 $22.30
Alabama $31,390 $15.09
Arkansas $32,170 $15.47
Arizona $37,790 $18.17
California $44,780 $21.53
Colorado $40,270 $19.36
Connecticut $41,010 $19.71
Delaware $36,450 $17.52
Florida $35,480 $17.06
Georgia $35,470 $17.05
Hawaii $42,460 $20.41
Iowa $38,290 $18.41
Idaho $37,650 $18.10
Illinois $37,910 $18.23
Indiana $36,600 $17.59
Kansas $34,270 $16.48
Kentucky $33,360 $16.04
Louisiana $30,620 $14.72
Massachusetts $44,200 $21.25
Maryland $39,280 $18.89
Maine $38,990 $18.74
Michigan $35,640 $17.14
Minnesota $44,010 $21.16
Missouri $34,380 $16.53
Mississippi $31,640 $15.21
Montana $39,000 $18.75
North Carolina $35,650 $17.14
North Dakota $37,440 $18.00
Nebraska $36,560 $17.58
New Hampshire $40,370 $19.41
New Jersey $39,600 $19.04
New Mexico $34,470 $16.57
Nevada $36,890 $17.74
New York $42,100 $20.24
Ohio $35,330 $16.99
Oklahoma $32,230 $15.49
Oregon $44,000 $21.16
Pennsylvania $36,750 $17.67
Rhode Island $39,390 $18.94
South Carolina $34,270 $16.48
South Dakota $33,880 $16.29
Tennessee $35,150 $16.90
Texas $34,660 $16.66
Utah $35,570 $17.10
Virginia $38,330 $18.43
Vermont $39,220 $18.86
Washington $47,320 $22.75
Wisconsin $39,670 $19.07
West Virginia $31,230 $15.01
Wyoming $37,470 $18.01

Does being a CMA pay well?

Being a CMA can offer a decent starting salary. The average salary for an entry-level certified medical assistant was $41,259 per year as of August 2022.

How can you make more money as a medical assistant?

Like with any job, you can make more money as a medical assistant with experience and further education. You can also earn more depending on where you work.

What are the highest paid medical assistants?

The highest paid medical assistants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, tend to be those that work for insurance agencies, while medical assistants in chiropractor’s offices can potentially earn the least. Remember that every place of employment will be different so it’s worth inquiring about salary when you interview for jobs.

Highest Paying Medical Assistant Jobs

Place of Work Annual Mean Salary
Insurance agencies and brokerages $52,970
Commercial equipment wholesalers $48,940
Electronic shopping and mail-order houses $44,420
Outpatient care centers $44,680
Insurance carriers $44,390
Hospitals $39,550
Doctor's offices $37,610

What's higher than a medical assistant?

After a medical assistant, the next highest role would be a licensed practical nurse (LPN), followed by a registered nurse (RN), advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), and a nurse practitioner.

What's the next step after becoming a medical assistant?

After becoming a medical assistant and working in the field, you may be thinking about advancing your career. In most cases, this will mean pursuing additional credentials and furthering your education. The most common next step for medical assistants tends to be pursuing the career path to become a nurse, so you’ll need to likely earn an associate or bachelor’s degree, as well as take a licensing exam if that interests you.

“I know a lot of nurses and nurse practitioners that started out as certified nursing assistants,” says Jaime Nguyen, Director of Penn Foster Allied Health Programs, “that then went into becoming medical assistants, then became an LPN and then became a nurse. Of course, there are many that actually went straight for it, but [becoming a medical assistant] is a great way to take a step into the field and then start to build and ladder into more advanced training.”

Medical assistant requirements

There are some basic requirements to become a medical assistant. While most states don’t require you to have more than a high school diploma and on-the-job training to work in this career, most employers prefer to hire those who have training and education as a medical assistant. This means pursuing either a medical assistant career diploma or medical assistant degree program.

Once you’ve graduated from your program, it can be helpful to become certified as a medical assistant. Again, most states don’t require medical assistants to have certification to work in the field, but having that credential can make you more appealing to potential employers and allow you to earn a higher salary.

After working in the field for a few years, you’ll also want to regularly complete continuing education courses in order to stay on top of trends in the field and qualify for recertification. Certified clinical medical assistants need to recertify every 2 years, while registered medical assistants must do so every 3 years.

Medical assistant vs CNA vs LPN

There are many roles within the healthcare industry and it can sometimes become difficult to understand the differences between them. For example, since nurses and medical assistants complete some of the same duties, such as recording and updating patient medical histories, it may seem like their roles are very similar. However, there are several differences that set each role apart.

What is the difference between a medical assistant, a certified nursing assistant, and a licensed practical nurse?

Medical Assistant CNA LPN
Support doctors Provide direct care to patients Provide direct care to patients
Perform administrative and clinical duties Perform patient care tasks such as showering, dressing, and eating Provide basic medical care such as checking blood pressure and catheterization
Generally works in outpatient settings Works in in-patient settings Works in in-patient settings
Diploma or degree not required, but helpful Diploma or certificate required Degree required

Is being a medical assistant worth it?

Being a medical assistant can be challenging, hard work but if you love helping others and making a difference, it can absolutely be worth it! Medical assisting is a rewarding job that allows you to work directly with patients and see the difference the work you do makes.

According to Jaime Nguyen, Director of Allied Health Programs at Penn Foster, in a Facebook Live focused on healthcare programs, “We can underestimate how incredibly rewarding it is, too. It’s one of the few professions in which you can directly affect someone’s life.”

What are the disadvantages of being a medical assistant?

Medical assisting is a rewarding job, but it does come with some disadvantages. The cons of being a medical assistant include

  • Long hours or a varied work schedule
  • Stress
  • Having to report to higher ups
  • Being on your feet all day
  • Working closely with others
  • Working with needles

However, for those who are passionate about working in healthcare, the pros of being a medical assistant far outweigh the cons.

Are medical assistants happy?

Working in any role in healthcare can be tough, both emotionally and physically. But most medical assistants are happy in their roles. According to Career Explorer, which conducts an ongoing survey of professionals in a variety of industries, medical assistants have an average level of job satisfaction. This puts them in the top 50% of careers!

Become a medical assistant online

If you know that working in healthcare is the right move for you, becoming a medical assistant online can help you take the next steps toward the job you want. With Penn Foster’s online Medical Assistant Career Diploma and Medical Assistant Associate Degree, you can prepare to become a CMA on your schedule, from home. To learn more about which program is right for you or to get started today, contact our expert Admissions Specialists at 1-888-427-6500!