A medical assistant is an allied health professional that supports the work of physicians and other health professionals, usually in a clinic setting. Medical assistants can become certified through an accredited program usually offered through a junior or community college. They perform routine tasks and procedures such as measuring patients’ vital signs, administering medications and injections, recording information in medical recordkeeping systems, preparing and handling medical instruments and supplies, and collecting and preparing specimens of bodily fluids and tissues for laboratory testing.
The term “medical assistant” may have legal status in jurisdictions where they can be certified or registered, whereas elsewhere they may be a loosely defined group (covering related occupational titles such as ‘medical office assistant’, ‘clinical assistant’, ‘assistant medical officer’, or ‘ophthalmic assistant’). The occupation should not be confused with physician assistants, who are licensed professionals trained to practice medicine and perform surgical procedures in collaboration with a physician.
In military settings, occupations that provide primary medical care may go under similar titles, while other occupations may have different titles with similar responsibilities, such as Medical Assistant in the U.K. Royal Navy or Hospital Corpsman in the U.S. Navy.
Medical assistants perform routine clinical and administrative duties under the direct supervision of a physician or other health care professional. Medical assistants perform many administrative duties, including answering telephones, greeting patients, updating and filing patients’ medical records, filling out insurance forms, handling correspondence, scheduling appointments, arranging for hospital admission and laboratory services, and handling billing and book keeping. Duties vary according to laws of the jurisdiction and may include taking medical histories and recording vital signs, explaining treatment procedures to patients, preparing patients for examination, and assisting during diagnostic examinations. Medical assistants collect and prepare laboratory specimens or perform basic laboratory tests on the premises, dispose of contaminated supplies, and sterilize medical instruments. They instruct patients about medications and special diets, prepare and administer medications as directed, authorize drug refills as directed, telephone prescriptions to a pharmacy, draw blood, prepare patients for X-rays, take electrocardiograms, remove sutures, and change dressings. They also facilitate communication between the patient and other health care professionals.
Some jurisdictions allow medical assistants to perform more advanced procedures, such as giving injections or taking X-rays, after passing a test or taking a course.
According to the International Standard Classification of Occupations, medical assistants normally require formal training in health services provision for competent performance in their jobs. Formal education usually occurs in post secondary institutions such as vocational schools, technical institutes, community colleges, proprietary colleges, online educational programs or junior colleges. Medical assistant training programs most commonly lead to a certificate or a diploma, which take around one year to complete, or an associate degree, which takes around two years. Study topics include medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and programs may include a clinical internship wherein the student works as a medical assistant in a medical clinic.