Medical assistants are healthcare professionals who help run the offices of physicians and healthcare providers by performing daily administrative and clinical tasks. Specific duties vary depending on geographic location, the size of the practice, and the practitioner’s specialty area. In smaller practices medical assistants generally have a wider range of responsibilities, performing administrative and clinical duties independently. Those working in larger healthcare facilities usually specialize in a particular area, and are supervised by a department administrator.
Medical assistants have many administrative responsibilities, and are often the first point of contact for patients entering a medical facility. They may be responsible for greeting patients, answering phones, scheduling appointments, organizing patient medical records, filling out insurance forms, bookkeeping, and billing.
The clinical duties of a medical assistant vary according to state law, but can include preparing patients for examination, recording medical histories, assisting the physician during the exam by drawing blood, removing sutures, changing dressings, and taking electrocardiograms. Medical assistants are often responsible for explaining treatment procedures to patients, and giving instructions about medication and special diets. Further duties may include preparing laboratory specimens, discarding contaminated supplies, and sterilizing medical instruments. Some facilities allow medical assistants to refill prescriptions.
Duties a Medical Assistant Cannot Undertake
As medical assistants do not need to be licensed, the clinical duties they can and cannot perform are dictated by state law. In general, they are not allowed to provide medical treatment independently or perform invasive medical procedures or other tasks that require a license, and must work under the direct supervision of a physician in relation to clinical tasks. More specific information about state laws can be found on the American Association of Medical Assistants’ website.
The Difference Between Medical Assistants and Physician’s Assistants
Although they may perform routine clinical duties, medical assistants are not physician assistants – the two are often confused. Physician assistants, commonly referred to as PAs, examine, diagnose, and treat patients under the supervision of a physician or surgeon. They have more clinical responsibilities than medical assistants and fewer administrative duties. PAs work directly with other members of a healthcare team to examine and treat patients; order laboratory tests such as X-rays; prescribe medications; treat minor injuries that require suturing, splitting, or casting; and independently make diagnoses. In some clinics, they may also be responsible for managerial duties such as ordering medical equipment and even supervising medical assistants.
The specific duties of medical assistants vary with office size, location, and specialty. In smaller practices medical assistants usually have greater responsibilities and are known as generalists, performing both administrative and clinical tasks. Those working in larger practices may specialize in either clinical or administrative tasks.
- Administrative medical assistants handle the clerical duties within a medical practice. They maintain and file patients’ medical records, fill out insurance paperwork, arrange for hospital admissions and laboratory services, and handle bookkeeping and billing. They also handle communicative tasks such as greeting patients, answering telephones, scheduling appointments, and handling correspondence.
- Clinical medical assistants have a range of clinical responsibilities that are determined by state law. They may record medical histories and vital signs, prepare patients for examinations by explaining treatment procedures, and assist physicians during the examinations. If directly instructed by a physician, they may also prepare and administer medications, approve medication refills, draw blood, prepare patients for screenings such as X-rays, perform electrocardiograms, and remove sutures. They may also perform laboratory tests, discard contaminated supplies, and sterilize medical equipment.
What Type of Person Would Do Well in This Career?
Medical assistants should enjoy helping others and have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. They must often work with patients who are experiencing discomfort and pain, so patience and empathy are essential. They should be able to help patients feel at ease, and explain procedures and instructions clearly. As physicians’ schedules tend to be over-booked, medical assistants are expected to educate patients, making sure that they understand their diagnosis, and can follow the instructions of their physicians. Medical assistants should be comfortable multitasking, for the job is demanding and requires the ability to handle more than one task at a given time.