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What is a Registered Medical Assistant?

Registered medical assistants, or RMAs, provide assistance to doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals in a variety of settings to aid in providing quality care. They carry out an array of tasks, including working directly with patients and handling duties in the front office. Here, you can learn everything about a career as a registered medical assistant, including the education and credentials you’ll need, the skills you should possess, and even the anticipated job outlook for many years to come.


Educational Requirements

In order to work as a registered medical assistant, all you need is a high school diploma or a GED Even though postsecondary education isn’t necessary or required by law, most employers prefer to hire individuals who have earned certificates, diplomas, or degrees and who have become registered or certified in the field. If you choose to obtain postsecondary education, there are three options.

• Certificate or Diploma – Many community colleges and technical schools across the country offer certificate or diploma programs that will allow you to enter the workforce with the education you need to land a job in today’s competitive world. These take anywhere from 8 to 18 months to complete, and there are on-campus as well as online options available. If you choose to get your education online, you can complete the classroom coursework via the internet, but you will need to attend classes for the laboratory portion of your education. You may also be responsible for scheduling your own externship, though some schools work with certain medical facilities in order to help you do this.

• Associate’s Degree – This option takes about two years to complete, and it covers everything in the diploma or certificate program, but is far more in-depth. Some employers only hire registered medical assistants who have earned a degree, as well. There are online programs available from a variety of colleges across the country, but as with diploma and certificate programs, you must complete laboratory assignments on campus. If you choose to get your degree from an accredited university, your externship will likely be scheduled for you, and it will take place at the medical facility directly associated with the university.


Certification

Registration, much like certification, is not required to work as a medical assistant, but it can make you a more valuable candidate to potential employers. Having earned this credential shows that you have mastered the skills and expertise necessary to work in your field. Many states do have Scope of Practice laws, which can limit the duties of a medical assistant who has not earned certain designations through education or credentialing agencies. You can find a list of each state’s Scope of Practice laws at the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) website.

A nonprofit group known as the American Medical Technologists (AMT), offers the RMA credential, and the AMT itself is endorsed by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). In order to qualify to sit for the examination, candidates must meet one of five different eligibility routes.

1. Education – Applicants for the registered medical assistant exam must be recent graduates (or expected graduates) of an accredited medical assisting program comprising 720 clock-hours of training, including 160 externship hours. The program must be accredited by an agency recognized by the United States Department of Education, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or another facility approved by AMT’s Board of Directors.

2. Military – In this case, the applicant needs to be a graduate (or expected graduate) of a formal medical training program provided by the United States Armed Forces within the last four years. Those who apply for the exam more than four years after completing the program must have three years’ work experience as a medical assistant out of the last five.

3. Employment – If the candidate has not graduated from an accredited program, he or she must have worked five out of the last seven years as a medical assistant. Work experience must include both clinical and administrative duties, and candidates must provide proof of a high school diploma or its equivalent in order to sit for the RMA exam. Alternatively, work experience of five years as an instructor in an accredited MA program can also make you an eligible candidate to apply for the exam.

4. Other Examination – In some cases, if you have passed the medical assisting certification examination through some other organization, you may not need to take an AMT exam to earn the RMA credential as long as you meet one of the three criteria above and the credentialing organization is approved by the AMT Board of Directors.


Exam Details and Cost

You can fill out your application for the RMA examination offered by the AMT online by logging into or creating an account. The examination costs $120, and AMT offers up a variety of resources to help you pass, including their online practice tests and review courses. The examination consists of 210 multiple-choice questions, and you will take it at one of dozens of Pearson VUE testing centers across the country. You’ll need to schedule the exam online through Pearson to get your exam date. Unlike many other credentialing agencies, you will get your score immediately after you take your exam. You will receive your official RMA certificate and card within 7-14 days. You may take the exam again within 45 days of the initial date if you do not pass, but you will need to pay a retesting fee of $90. You have up to four attempts to pass the exam.

Unlike many other credentialing agencies, you will need to re-register with AMT annually to keep your designation active. The annual fee is $50, and you will also need to comply with the Certification Continuation Program set forth by AMT. You must obtain 30 CCP points each three years, which are equivalent to continuing education credits that are required by other credentialing agencies.


Necessary Skills

Although you can enter the workforce as a registered medical assistant with only minimal education, not everyone is cut out for this career path. Not only will you need a set of skills that you can learn through classroom instruction and on-the-job training, but you’ll also fare best with an inherent set of qualities that will help you truly succeed as a registered medical assistant. The skills you can learn that will lend to your success include:

• A firm understanding of computers and basic software that is often used in medical offices, including spreadsheets and word processors.

• Basic math skills for assisting patients with billing concerns or billing insurance companies for services rendered.

• Knowledge of medical coding and terminology for the purpose of understanding patient diagnoses and transferring information into or from patient files.

• Organizational skills for handling and processing patient records.

• Understanding of HIPAA practices and policies for maintaining confidential patient information.

• Familiarity with a wide variety of medical conditions for assisting in the diagnosis and treatment of patients.

• Knowledge of prescription drugs, over-the-counter remedies, and herbal supplements to help patients better understand how the things they take will affect them.

• Familiarity with many different types of instruments and implements commonly used in medical practices, including those used for taking vital signs as well as x-ray machines, sterilizing equipment, and others.


Personal Qualities

Some of the personal qualities that make you a stronger candidate in the workforce include:

• Compassion and empathy for others, as this will allow you to provide the best and most thorough care.

• The ability to maintain a professional distance in order to avoid undue stress and grief, allowing you to focus on caring for a variety of patients.

• Attention to detail since catching the very smallest symptom may help lead to the proper diagnosis of a patient.

• Verbal skills for communicating with patients who may be distraught, concerned, grieving, ill, or injured.

• A strong work ethic which will allow you to work as efficiently and thoroughly as possible.

• Flexibility in the workplace, which makes you an excellent candidate for performing many tasks in a medical facility, whether they are administrative or clinical in nature.

• A positive attitude for helping patients feel better about their visits to the healthcare facility. Remember that you will directly represent your employer, and your face will often be the first that patients see. Being able to greet patients with a friendly disposition could make all of the difference.

• Self-motivation for tackling duties as the need arises, rather than waiting to be asked to complete a task.

• Adaptability for coping with changes in the healthcare industry, whether they are related to new procedures and equipment or ever-changing privacy laws.

• The desire to learn new things since your registered designation depends on your ability and motivation to obtain continuing education credits. What’s more, staying abreast of the latest developments in medicine will make you more valuable to not only your employers, but also your patients.


Duties

A registered medical assistant will carry out a variety of tasks on a day-to-day basis, and these will vary based upon the facility of employment as well as the number of employees in that facility. For example, a registered MA in a large facility may have a very specific set of duties, while someone working for a very small private practice may handle a wider range of tasks due to staffing limitations. As a registered MA, some of the duties that you may perform include:

• Answering telephones to set appointments, answer questions, or handle billing inquiries from patients and insurance companies.

• Contacting patients via telephone to remind them of their appointments, to collect payments, or to provide the results of laboratory tests.

• Contacting insurance companies to verify patients’ coverage and to obtain preauthorization for certain procedures as required by the insurance provider.

• Assisting with insurance forms and filing.

• Taking medical histories from patients.

• Asking patients about their primary complaints and the reasons for their visits.

• Answering patient questions about certain treatments, medications, and procedures.

• Escorting patients to examination rooms and cleaning those examination rooms between patients.

• Assisting doctors and nurses with examinations as required.

• Taking vital signs, including temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and others.

• Performing basic cleaning duties, such as emptying trash bins and keeping the workplace neat.

• Organizing and optimizing patient records.


Schedule and Work Environment

The schedule and work environment may vary significantly based on the type of facility in which a registered medical assistant works. Some may work in very small practices for a single physician, but others may work in the largest emergency and trauma departments in the nation. Registered medical assistants must be incredibly versatile for this very reason. There are three different categories and environments in which a registered medical assistant might seek employment:

• Hospitals – The role of an RMA in a hospital depends greatly on the department in which he or she works. Some RMAs may be assigned to different departments each shift based on need, and others may work solely in one department for each shift. While someone who works in the oncology ward may have a relatively predictable job, an individual in an emergency department might be directly or indirectly responsible for saving dozens of lives, which can be quite stressful. These individuals may work any hours – day or night – and they are often asked to work weekends and holidays, as well. About 15% of all medical assistants work in hospital settings at the state, local, or private level.

• Clinics and Outpatient Care Facilities – This category includes everything from urgent and intermediate care facilities to free clinics and locally-funded health departments. Most of the time, the job is fairly predictable and involves mainly daytime hours with very few (if any) weekends and holidays required. However, urgent care facilities are an exception; these rarely close and serve as an emergency center for patients who are experiencing serious, but not life-threatening injuries or illnesses. In this case, the job can be more stressful and night, weekends, and holidays may be a requirement. Only 7% of all medical assistants work in these types of environments.

• Doctors’ Offices – The vast majority of medical assistants seek employment in doctor’s offices. Their skillsets make them incredibly valuable assets since they can help doctors, nurses, and even medical administrative assistants with their duties. This is the most predictable type of work environment by far, and it rarely calls for long hours or working nights, weekends, or holidays. 57% of all medical assistants work in primary care physicians’ offices, while another very small percentage work in specialists’ offices.


Salary

Type Hourly Monthly Annual
Entry-Level $12.63 $2,190 $26,280
Mid-Level $15.96 $2,770 $33,200
Experienced $22.55 $3,910 $46,910

According to a survey undertaken by our editorial team, on average, registered medical assistants $34,320 annually as of May 2018. The amount of money you can earn as a registered medical assistant varies based on many factors, including your level of education, the credentials you’ve earned, your experience, your geographic place of employment, and even the size of the facility for which you work.

• Geographical Location – The BLS also reports that registered medical assistants who work in large metropolitan areas often earn more per year than those who work in smaller areas. Simply put, you will earn a larger salary in locations that have better local economies and more demand for quality healthcare.

• Type of Facility – If you work in a high-stress, fast-paced environment such as an emergency room, you will likely earn more money as a registered medical assistant than if you worked in a slower-paced doctor’s office – even in the same town.

• Work Schedule – If you work overnights, weekends, and/or holidays, you can earn a shift differential which can add several thousand dollars to your annual salary as an RMA.

• Education – Individuals who have only a high school diploma earn significantly less per year than those who have associate’s degrees, even if they work in the same facility in the same geographical location.

• Experience – Many employers are willing to pay RMAs more if they can demonstrate adequate experience within the field.

• Certifications – Finally, individuals who have one or more designations, including not only RMA, but also CCMA (Certified Clinical Medical Assistant) or CMA (Certified Medical Assistant) earn far more than medical assistants who do not have these designations.


Employment Outlook

Job security in the healthcare industry is above-average, which means individuals working in these fields generally do not have much to fear in terms of layoffs and facility closures. The employment of medical assistants as a whole is expected to climb by 29.00% before 2026, which represents growth that is much faster than average. This growth will be fueled by several factors, including the aging baby boomer population as well as better access to affordable healthcare, both of which are driving up demand for more highly qualified healthcare service providers. Registered medical assistants due to their education and credentials will always enjoy a clear edge over their uncertified counterparts.


Future Career Options

When you choose a career as a RMA, you can enter the workforce very quickly without much postsecondary education, if any at all. While many people enjoy lifelong careers as registered medical assistants, there are some who use this opportunity as a stepping stone to better, higher-paying careers that require more education and more responsibility. You may opt to earn a certificate in medical coding and billing, which can increase your salary to $42,820 per year. If you are interested in going back to college for a four-year master’s degree, you can even become a physician’s assistant. This job is far more in-depth and requires diagnosing and treating patients as well as providing them with prescriptions. These individuals earn an average of $104,760 per year. Finally, you may go back to school for any number of healthcare-related jobs, including nursing, physical therapy, or occupational therapy.


Conclusion

As you can see, a career as a registered medical assistant can be incredibly fulfilling, whether you choose to obtain a certificate, diploma, or degree. These individuals work directly with patients each and every day to provide quality health care, which often changes or even saves lives. It’s a great choice for a lifelong occupation, but it is also a fantastic stepping stone to other higher-paying careers in healthcare in the future.