How to Become Certified as a Medical Assistant

What is a medical assistant?

A medical assistant can work in a hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office to perform administrative tasks such as scheduling appointments and completing insurance forms, as well as, patient care tasks such as taking vital signs, drawing blood, and assisting doctors during physical exams. In some states, medical assistants can administer injections like vaccinations (except in CT and NY). Medical assistants can be trained on the job. It is possible to get a job as a medical assistant without any healthcare experience depending on where you live and who you work for. Sometimes it is helpful to have other training or certifications such as phlebotomy or EMT certification, or experience as a CNA or other healthcare worker. The only state currently requiring certification for medical assistants is Washington state and NJ. Approximately 60% work in physician’s offices, and about 14% in hospitals. 

Medical assistants are vital members of the health care team. They are often the first person that a patient sees during their appointment. Much of what the MA does is make sure a patient’s visit is as smooth and valuable to the patient as possible.

What does it mean to be a certified medical assistant?

A certified medical assistant has passed one of the national certification exams for medical assisting. There is value in earning the credentials of a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA, AAMA), Registered Medical Assistant (RMA, AMT), or Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA, NHA). Most states do not require that medical assistants have certification, however, employers might be more likely to hire certified medical assistants, in some cases may require certification, and may pay higher salaries if you are certified. Salary may be up to 10% higher for the same scope of practice and workload. 

There are several national certification exams, the first three being the most commonly recognized:  

  1. American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Certification Exam
  2. American Medical Technologists (AMT) Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) Certification
  3. National Healthcare Association (NHA) CCMA (Certified Clinical Medical Assistant Certification) exam 
  4. American Medical Certification Association (AMCA) Clinical Medical Assistant Certification (CMAC) 
  5. National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) National Certified Medical Assistant Exam (NCMA)
  6. RCMA Certification: National Association for Health Professionals (ALLOWS just work experience – but must be 2 years full time credential relevant experience – but allows related fields such as EMT)

Who is eligible to sit for a certification exam?

  1. Certified Medical Assistant Certification Exam (CMA): This exam has 200 multiple-choice questions administered over four, 40-minute sections in three categories – clinical competency, general, and administrative. You must score 425 (out of 800) to pass, and must pass each category individually. The cost is $125. You are allowed 3 attempts to pass before you must repeat your medical assistant course. The certification is valid for 60 months form the exam date and can be maintained with continuing education courses. You are eligible for the exam if:
    1. You are a completing student or recent graduate of a CAAHEP– or ABHES-accredited medical assisting program. 
    2. You are a nonrecent graduate of a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited medical assisting program. If you apply for the exam more than 12 months after graduation, you are considered a nonrecent graduate. 
    3. You have previously passed the CMA (AAMA) Certification Exam and you want to apply to recertify your credential by testing rather than completing continuing education units (CEUs). 
  2. Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) Exam: The exam has 200 multiple-choice questions in three categories: General medical assisting knowledge, administrative medical assisting, and administrative. You need to get a minimum of 70% of the questions to pass. This exam is reported to be slightly easier than the CMA exam. The exam costs $120 and it is good for three years and can be maintained with continuing education credits.
    1. Education: You are a completing student or recent graduate of an accredited medical assistant program that provides at least 720 clock hours of instruction and 160 clock hours of externship. You must have graduated within 3 years. 
    2. Military: You are a completing student or recent graduate of a formal medical services training program offered by the United States Armed Forces. This program should provide at least 720 clock hours of instruction and 160 clock hours of externship. If you graduated more than four years ago you mus apply through Work Experience. 
    3. Work Experience: You have been employed as a full time medical assistant for a minimum of five out of the last seven years. You must show proof of CPR certification (AHA or American Red Cross), work experience with both clinical and administrative duties, and high school graduation (or equivalent).
    4. Instructor: You are currently an instructor in an accredited medical assisting program, and you have completed a course of instruction in healthcare discipline related to medical assisting. Additionally, you must have a minimum of five years of teaching experience in a medical assisting discipline with a range of both clinical and administrative competencies that broadly represents core medical assistant duties. 
    5. Apprenticeship/Workforce Development Program: 
  1. Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) Certification Exam: The exam has 150 multiple-choice questions in seven domains: Foundational knowledge and basic science, anatomy and physiology, clinical patient care, patient care coordination and education, administrative assisting, communication and customer service, medical law, and ethics. You need a scaled score of 380 (out of 500) to pass. This exam has a larger focus on clinical over administrative tasks. The exam costs $155 and must be renewed every two years. You can get college credit for the CCMA exam if you decide to go back to school.
    1. You must possess a high school diploma or equivalent. 
    2. You must have successfully completed a medical assistant training program or at least one year of work experience as a medical assistant. 

Work experience and military training are NOT eligible criteria for New Jersey residents.

Where can you find medical assisting courses?

All three exams require you to participate in an accredited medical assisting program. You can search the CAAHEP and ABHES websites to find accredited programs near you. Most of these programs are between 6-8 months long. There are over 1,000 medical assisting programs accredited by either CAAHEP or ABHES. 

Online, asynchronous accredited training programs: 

  1. US Career Institute, 4 months, online $1239
  2. NIMAA (National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement) has a 29-week online program that you take in conjunction with an externship at certain partner externship sites focused on primary care. It is approved for the federal financial aid program. The cost is $6875. 
  3. HealthCareer Certs, $2400. Most HealthCareer Certs programs take 8-12 weeks to complete, based on a schedule dedicating 16 to 20 hours a week to coursework. It is an online self-paced program. 

How much do medical assistant courses cost?

There are many different types of medical assistant programs. On average a medical assisting course can range in price from $1000 -> $7000 and can range in duration from six weeks to twelve months. 

For the most part, premed or prePA students will be enrolling in a non degree or certificate program that lasts anywhere from a few months to a year. For those starting early there are some high school dual credit courses. 

Check to see if your university or a local community college offers a medical assisting course (this is true for EMT courses as well). If you are able to get credit and use that credit towards a graduation requirement you may be able to use your financial aid to cover the cost of the course. If in doubt talk to your advisor or financial aid officer. 

You can search for allied health scholarships online. AMT awards several scholarships a year or the MAxine Williams Scholarship offered by the AAMA which offers $1000. Medical Assistant degree scholarship. ASAHP scholarship 

Some clinical jobs/hospitals will offer apprenticeship programs or tuition reimbursement which will ultimately cover the cost of your medical assistant course and certification. Apprentices are typically required to complete 2,000 hours of paid, on-the-job training with the support and guidance of an experienced one- on one medical assistant coach and 364 hours of supplemental coursework. 

One example is Centura Health in Colorado which partners with an online eight-month course in medical assisting. While you complete the course you are hired by Centura Health and commit to a 13-month employment contract for a minimum of 12-32 hours/week.  They in turn cover $2500 of the $6700 tuition for your medical assisting course. 

Of course, you can always look for positions through CapYear that forego medical assistant certification and are willing to provide on-the-job training or you can highlight other related volunteer or paid healthcare experiences or certifications such as an EMT certification or BLS/ALS certification. 

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