Medical Assistant: Becoming a Medical Assistant or Physician Assistant

Learn how to become a medical assistant or physician assistant. Research the education and career requirements, licensure and experience required for starting a career as a medical assistant or physician assistant.

Do I Want to Be a Medical Assistant or a Physician Assistant?

Medical assistants work in the offices of doctors and physicians and are responsible for completing basic administrative and clinical tasks, such as taking patient histories and vital signs, preparing blood samples and scheduling appointments. Physician assistants also work under the supervision of physicians; however, they have more responsibilities and are qualified to order diagnostic tests, provide treatment and prescribe medication.

The specific duties of medical and physician assistants will vary, depending on the doctor's specialty and size of practice. In both cases, helping patients can be rewarding, even though working with patients who are sick or scared may often be stressful.

Job Requirements

There are typically no formal educational or licensure requirements to become a medical assistant; however, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that earning a certificate in medical assisting may be beneficial to finding employment. While on-the-job training is common, medical assistants also have the option to earn voluntary certification through various organizations.

Physician assistants typically need to earn a master's degree and obtain licensure in the field. The table below includes the requirements to become a medical or physician assistant.

Medical Assistant Physician Assistant
Degree Level Certificate* Master's degree*
Degree Field Medical assisting* Physician assistant*
Certification/Licensing Voluntary certification will demonstrate a medical assistant's knowledge and skills in the field** Passing a physician assistant certification exam is required for licensure**
Experience In order to learn about office policies and procedures, on-the-job training may be necessary for medical assistants** Physician assistant programs will prefer that applicants have some experience in the field**
Key Skills Medical assistants must have strong analytical skills and be very detail oriented* Physician assistants also must be very detail oriented and able to work under pressure while treating patients*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); ** job postings (August 2012)

Medical Assistant

Step 1: Earn a Medical Assistant Certificate

A certificate in medical assisting will prepare students to work in a healthcare setting and become part of a medical team. Students will learn how to perform routine clinical and administrative tasks; these include taking vital signs, collecting patient data, dressing changes, scheduling, bookkeeping, requesting laboratory tests and scheduling. In order to prepare for a medical assistant career, students will take courses involving anatomy, physiology, nutrition and patient care.

Success Tip

  • Choose an accredited program. In order to prepare for certification, students should pursue a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. Graduating from an accredited program will ensure employers that students are prepared for work upon graduation.

Step 2: Participate in a Practicum

As part of a certificate program, students may be required to complete a practicum in a medical setting. This is an opportunity for prospective medical assistants to apply what they have learned in the classroom in a professional environment. Students will shadow experienced medical assistants as they perform both clinical and administrative duties.

Success Tip

  • Think about a specialty area. Because medical assistants have the option to work in a variety of medical settings, students may want to choose a practicum that correlates to a specific specialty. For example, if students want to work with patients who are living with heart problems, then they should perform a practicum with a cardiologist.

Step 3: Earn Certification

Graduates of an accredited medical assisting program are eligible for certification in the field. While certification is not required to work as a medical assistant, the BLS reported that employers may prefer job candidates who are certified. The BLS also shows that the National Commission for Certifying Agencies accredits four organizations that offer medical assisting certification.

These organizations include the American Association of Medical Assistants, American Medical Technologists, National Center for Competency Testing and National Healthcareer Association. Each organization requires that medical assistants pass an exam to earn their certification designation.

Physician Assistant

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

In order to enroll in a physician assistant program, students need to earn a bachelor's degree in a health-related area, such as nursing. Prospective physician assistant programs will also prefer that applicants have some experience in the field, so it's important that students earn a degree that will prepare them for employment. Master's degree physician assistant programs may also have minimum grade point average requirements, so it's important that students perform well in their undergraduate classes.

Step 2: Gain Experience in the Field

Whether working as a registered nurse or emergency medical technician, physician assistant master's degree programs highly recommend that applicants have experience in the field before applying. Having patient care experience will be very valuable in preparing for work as a physician assistant. Before applying, students will need to provide verifiable experience and letters of recommendation, which often come from previous employment in the field.

Step 3: Enroll in a Physician Assistant Program

A physician assistant master's degree program is about two years in length and combines academic coursework with clinical experience. Students in the program will take courses in physical diagnosis, health care dynamics, clinical medicine, clinical procedures and behavioral science. The program also requires that students complete clinical rotations in a medical facility.

Success Tip

  • Choose a specialization. During a physician assistant program, students will have the option to choose a specialization in a medical area. Examples of specializations include internal medicine, surgery, emergency medicine and pediatrics.

Step 4: Earn Licensure

According to the BLS, physician assistants can obtain licensure in the field by passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam offered through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Passing this exam will earn physicians the Physician Assistant-Certified designation. In order to maintain their license, physicians assistants must pass a recertification exam.

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