A successful clinic requires competent "supporting actors" to handle routine administrative and clinical tasks.
Movie fans know that the success of a film depends as much on the supporting actors as it does on the stars in the lead roles. The same is true in healthcare. For example, while clinicians like doctors, nurses and physician assistants play the lead roles in ambulatory care, a successful clinic requires competent "supporting actors" to handle routine administrative and clinical tasks.
Keeping Things Flowing
The medical assistant is one of these supporting players. Assistants perform both administrative and clinical duties in clinics and doctors' offices. Depending on the setting, their administrative duties may include answering phones, handling correspondence, maintaining patient records, filling out insurance forms, scheduling appointments, arranging for hospital admission, billing and bookkeeping.
Clinical duties may include helping with examinations and treatments, taking medical histories, drawing blood, sterilizing instruments and supplies, assisting with minor surgery and administering medications. "We depend on medical assistants to support our clinicians and keep things flowing in the clinic," says Georgene Sorensen, Park Nicollet Health Services' director of patient care services for ambulatory care. "Assistants greet and 'room' patients and take vital signs. They're also responsible for many activities that contribute to efficient management of the clinic."
From Classroom To Clinic
A few medical assistants are trained on the job, but most graduate from formal programs. Some choose one-year programs that lead to a certificate or diploma. Others complete two-year associate degrees. Graduates of accredited programs are eligible to sit for the certification exam of the American Association of Medical Assistants.
Programs include courses in the use of medical scheduling and billing software, clinical procedures and routine tests. Most programs also offer an externship so that students can get on-the-job experience.
"Quite a few students do their externship with us at Park Nicollet," Sorensen says. "And often a successful externship leads to a job offer."
A Wonderful Entry-Level Job
Sorensen says that medical assisting "is a wonderful entry-level job because it gives you a broad view of healthcare."
As a result, medical assisting is a great springboard for those who want to enter other healthcare fields. Some assistants eventually decide to return to school to train as nurses, imaging technologists, laboratory technologists or other healthcare professionals.
Other medical assistants choose to specialize. For example, podiatric medical assistants make castings of feet and assist podiatrists with routine procedures on the feet. Ophthalmic medical assistants help ophthalmologists provide eye care. They measure and record vision, test eye muscle function, and show patients how to care for contact lenses.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical assisting will be one of the fastest growing occupations through the year 2014. Growth will be driven by an increase in the number of outpatient care facilities, such as group practices and clinics. Job prospects will be best for assistants with experience or formal training. Some employers prefer assistants with certification.
Earnings vary according to experience, skill level and location. In May 2004, the median annual earnings of medical assistants were $23,600.
Learn more at the American Association of Medical Assistants, www.aama-ntl.org.