What Skills are Necessary to Become a Medical Assistant?
Depending on the settings in which they work, medical assistants, or MAs, must possess a very broad set of skills. These range from basic administrative and clerical skills to more advanced clinical knowledge and customer service skills. If you want to become a medical assistant, focusing on the following sets of skills is sure to help you succeed.
There are some MAs who spend most of their workday utilizing a variety of front office skills. They perform mostly administrative tasks in order to assist the physicians, nurses, and other staff in providing the best possible healthcare. Administrative skills can be taught in a classroom or learned on the job. What’s more, employers prefer to hire MAs who have equal clinical and clerical skills because they are more versatile.
Basic Administrative Skills
Administrative skills vary based on the type of practice in which an MA works. In some cases, the medical assistant may only be responsible for basic clerical work. In others, the medical assistant may serve as both a secretary and an assistant to the physician depending on the patient load for that particular day. Medical assistants should possess all of the following basic administrative skills.
• Basic math skills for entering patient data accurately and handling cash, check, or debit/credit card transactions.
• Basic computer skills, such as keyboarding and navigation.
• Familiarity with common software used in offices, which may include but is not limited to word processing programs, spreadsheet and database software, or even proprietary software used by the practice.
• Organizational skills for the purpose of completing and filing patient records following examinations, procedures, and laboratory work.
• Interpersonal skills for contacting and working with health insurance providers and medical supply vendors.
• The ability to accurately fill out, read, and process insurance forms.
• An understanding of patient confidentiality laws and the ability to adhere to them.
• The ability to determine and reconcile patient copays prior to treatment, if required to do so.
• Collection skills for resolving unpaid patient debt.
• Basic secretarial skills related to answering phones, scheduling appointments, taking messages for staff, and more.
Interpersonal Clerical Skills for Patient Interaction
Aside from the basic administrative skills listed above, medical assistants who focus their duties in the front office will also work with patients on a day-to-day basis, whether this involves answering questions, handling complaints, or assisting with difficult insurance problems. Some of the best interpersonal skills that an MA working in the front office of any medical practice can have include:
• The ability to remain helpful, friendly, and cheerful, even when handling difficult situations with disgruntled patients.
• Perseverance, which is helpful when contacting insurance companies about denied claims or procedures that may or may not be covered under a patient’s plan.
• The ability to show genuine concern for patients who seem fearful of certain procedures, who are concerned about paying for necessary procedures, or who have concerns about medications they’ve been asked to take.
• The ability to multitask and handle more than one activity or conversation at the same time, especially in larger facilities or on days when facilities are understaffed.
Many MAs spend the majority of their days working directly with patients and physicians to provide quality healthcare. In order to do this, a medical assistant will need a variety of medical and interpersonal skills to succeed. While medical skills can be taught in the classroom, during an externship, or even on the job, interpersonal skills are honed and developed over a lifetime.
Common Medical Skills
Medical assistants may spend much of their days performing or assisting with medical procedures. The exact scope of the clinical work expected of an MA varies based upon the size of the facility, the physician’s specialty, and even the facility’s geographic location. The medical skills that an MA should have when applying for a position in a doctor’s office, specialist’s office, hospital, clinic, or any other facility include:
• Knowledge of prescription medications, including how to administer those medications and how to arrange for refills for patients.
• The ability to administer injections in states where Scope of Practice laws do not limit the abilities of the MA.
• An understanding of wound care and how to clean, treat, and dress a variety of wound types, ranging from deep lacerations to pressure ulcers.
• Knowledge of infection control and other safety guidelines that are imperative for keeping patients, staff, and visitors healthy.
• Basic back office skills, such as the ability to take blood pressures, temperatures, pulses, and oxygen saturation readings.
• Equipment skills for preparing equipment for use, assisting during the use of equipment, cleaning the equipment after each use, and maintaining that equipment.
• The ability to draw blood and accurately label samples for delivery to a laboratory.
• An understanding of the procedures involved in collecting urine, stool, and saliva samples, when required.
• The ability to safely remove sutures.
Interpersonal Skills for Clinical Patient Interaction
All medical assistants who perform clinical duties will need interpersonal and customer service skills in order to help them with patient interactions. Many patients will have questions about their care, and family members may express some concern about their loved ones. In cases like these, the MA will be responsible for providing explanations, explaining treatments and procedures, and even briefing family members on their loved ones’ conditions. A successful MA will possess the following interpersonal skills.
• Knowledge of prescription and over-the-counter medications as well as dietary and herbal supplements in order to answer patients’ questions about medications and instructions for use.
• The ability to explain complicated medical and procedural information to patients in a language they can understand;
• Patience for helping people who may be upset, angry, or difficult.
• The ability to be very thorough and observant when asking patients questions during a medical history as this information can save the patient’s life.
• A knack for helping patients who are severely injured or otherwise distressed stay calm.
• Assistant skills such as greeting and receiving patients and helping them prepare for examinations or procedures.
• Critical thinking skills which can help when triaging patients or working in very stressful conditions. Making very quick decisions based information provided by a patient can save his or her life. For example, medical assistants should be able to deduce whether a patient’s symptoms are being caused by a new medication or an underlying condition in order to provide the best and fastest intervention.
Cleaning and Safety Skills
Medical assistants are often called upon to assist with everyday cleanup, laundry, sanitization, and more. While larger facilities will often employ cleaning crews to handle these tasks, this is not the case in smaller practices. As such, MAs who want to be valuable assets to their employers should develop the following cleaning and safety skills.
• An understanding of the facility’s infection control procedures.
• Knowledge of the correct disposal of sharps and biomedical waste.
• The ability to pay attention to detail and restock supplies when needed, including patient gowns, exam table liners, exam gloves, and more.
• An understanding of the processes involved in cleaning and sterilizing medical equipment between each patient.
• Knowledge and understanding of the cleaning products used in the facility as it relates to cleaning floors, windows, or other hard surfaces.
• Familiarity with the products used for sanitizing exam tables and other equipment, including stethoscopes, between patients.
• An understanding of the facility’s laundering procedures, including when to empty laundry and where to take it to be cleaned.
• The ability to pay close attention to detail in order to keep patient exam rooms, restrooms, front offices, and waiting areas clean and safe.
Personal Skills and Qualities
Regardless of whether an MA will work in the back office to provide and assist with patient care or in the front office to help with the administrative side of things, he or she should also possess an inherent set of personal skills and qualities in order to truly succeed in this career path and perhaps even further his or her career in the future. These skills include:
• Active listening skills for maximizing the efficiency of interactions between patients, coworkers, and supervisors.
• The ability to adapt to changes within the facility, including new job duties.
• Solid collaboration skills for effective communication and teamwork.
• Empathy for not only patients and their loved ones, but also for coworkers.
• Knowledge of common foreign languages, particularly Spanish.
• Manual dexterity, which creates a safer environment for patients when getting their blood drawn or having their sutures removed.
• The ability to multitask, particular in situations when an MA must carry out both clinical and clerical duties at the same time.
• Prioritizing skills that will help with everything from triaging patients to maximizing efficiency and effectiveness in the workplace.
• Problem solving skills for assisting patients and coworkers with a variety of problems that may arise.
• The ability to recognize his or her own limitations and ask for help when appropriate.
As you can see, a medical assistant’s job is about much more than simply taking and recording patients’ vital signs. MAs play vital, active roles in every healthcare facility, so employers will often look for the most skilled and qualified individuals to fill open positions. When you focus on learning and developing all of these skills, you can prove yourself to be a well-rounded candidate who can handle a variety of situations with confidence.