In the past years, formal training and certifications were not required of medical assistants. Most were trained on the job. But in the last few years, as the number of nurses decline and as the number of patients with chronic medical conditions increases, physicians began to utilize the skills of medical assistants to perform basic tasks that involve patient care.
The increasing role of medical assistants in patient care resulted in significant changes in the profession. Most states and employers currently require medical assistants to obtain formal training and certifications from medical assistant schools before employment. At present, 1- or 2-year medical assisting programs are offered in community and junior colleges, post-secondary vocational schools and vocational-technical high schools. A 1-year program results in a diploma, whereas a 2-year program results in an associate degree in medical assisting. Some institutions are also offering medical assistant online programs. These programs require students to complete online courses and training in actual work settings.
Medical assistants are mainly tasked to perform clerical and clinical works in the offices of physicians and other healthcare professionals, such as podiatrists, chiropractors and optometrists. They are also employed in public and private hospitals, inpatient and outpatient facilities and nursing care facilities.
The duties of medical assistants may vary from state to state and from office to office. The roles and responsibilities of each medical assistant largely depend on the location and size of office, area of specialty of the practitioner and on the level of their training. Medical assistants with formal training have the opportunity to specialize in one area.
In smaller offices of practice, medical assistants are assigned with different kinds of tasks. They are in-charge of handling both administrative and clinical tasks. Administrative duties include answering and making phone calls to patients and insurance companies, filing, updating and organizing patient charts, checking and ordering supplies, scheduling appointments, calling in prescriptions, bookkeeping, managing billings, filling out insurance forms, receiving patients and arranging admissions and laboratory services. Clinical duties include obtaining and documenting vital signs and medical histories, preparing instruments, arranging examining rooms, assisting patients before diagnostic examinations like x-rays and electrocardiograms, assisting physicians during medical procedures and explaining diagnostic or treatment procedures to patients. Medical assistants can also collect specimen for laboratory tests, perform basic laboratory tests, prepare and administer medications, remove sutures, change dressings and authorize drug refills. These tasks are done under the supervision of a physician. A medical assistant must report directly to the practitioner or manager. In general, medical assistants in smaller offices are tasked to perform front office and back office functions as they work side-by-side with practitioners to deliver timely and efficient patient care.
Medical assistants working in larger offices are usually tasked to perform duties in one specialized area. They are either assigned to perform administrative works or clinical duties. In contrast to medical assistants working in smaller offices, medical assistants employed in larger offices, such as in inpatient and outpatient facilities, work under the supervision of the department administrators.