As healthcare becomes increasingly complex and roles for medical assistants expand, certification is becoming increasingly valuable. It’s a confidence booster for graduates, and for prospective employers, certification can demonstrate a candidate’s proven skills and commitment to the healthcare field. In a competitive job market, it’s an advantage. The good news is that vocational schools understand the value of certification, and they work hard to prepare students for exams on one of these three pathways to success.
Pathways to Medical Assistant Certification
There are three premier organizations through which medical assistants can seek certification, the qualifications for each vary. They evolve as needs in the workforce change, but there are pathways for new graduates and experienced medical assistants alike.
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) – AAMA
The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential, conferred by the is the most widely recognized certification for medical assistants. Accredited by the International Accreditation Service (IAS), the AAMA’s certification process meets the highest global criteria and benchmarks to assure the CMA credential remains meaningful. As of mid-2019, there were more than 85,000 CMAs in the workforce, and the number of medical assistants taking the certification exam is growing annually.
Candidates must meet these criteria to sit for the CMA Certification Exam:
- Students must be graduates of a medical assisting program approved by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Among certifying agencies, the AAMA is the sole organization requiring test candidates to graduate from programs accredited by one of these two top agencies. The goal is to ensure students are well prepared.
- Current students may take the exam up to 30 days before graduation.
- Graduates may take the test up to 36 months post-graduation.
- Medical assistants who’ve passed the CMA exam in the past may retake it as part of the recertification process without meeting new education requirements.
The CMA exam is fully computerized, no hands-on clinical skill demonstrations are required. A quick tutorial before the test shows candidates how to navigate between screens.
Administered in four 40-minute segments, the exam contains 200 multiple-choice questions, including 20 pretest questions that are not graded. Of the 180 scored, 50 are general questions from categories such as psychology, ethics, therapeutic communication and medical terminology. Another 46 focus exclusively on administrative areas such as scheduling practices and record management. The last 85 are clinical in nature and cover topics from nutrition, pharmacology, diagnostic testing and more.
Optional breaks of up to 20 minutes between sections are allowed but not required, and students with special needs are encouraged to request accommodations in advance. The exam is proctored for security.
Official test results are delivered by mail three to four weeks after the exam, but candidates know right away if they’ve passed or failed. The AAMA will verify employer requests for certification status within a few business days, so there’s no need to delay looking for work.
There is no waiting period to retake the test for candidates who fail — more than 60-percent pass the first time. Only three attempts are permitted in a lifetime, however, so the AAMA recommends taking the exam just before or after graduation so knowledge is fresh. Most vocational schools sponsor group study sessions and offer individual support.
To renew their certification, CMAs must submit qualified continuing education credits or retake the exam every five years. The AAMA offers both learning opportunities and assistance meeting requirements, it’s one of the many benefits of being a member of the association.
Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) – AMT
The AMT, or , is a globally recognized leader in allied health professional certification. They’re accredited by the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and have offered a wide range of credentialing options for professions from dental assisting to phlebotomy since 1939.
The RMA, or Registered Medical Assistant, is an alternative certification for medical assistants who may not qualify for the CMA exam.
Candidates need only meet one, not all, of these four criteria:
- Be graduates of a medical assisting program approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, the U.S. Department of Education or by the AMT Board of Directors within the last 48 months. Approved programs must include a minimum of 720 classroom hours plus a supervised clinical externship of 160 hours or more.
- Be graduates of an Armed Forces medical assisting program within the last four years.
- Be CPR-certified high school graduates with at least five years of full-time experience as a medical assistant in the last seven years. Experience must include both clinical and administrative duties.
- Must have passed a comparable certification exam approved by the AMT’s board of directors.
Candidates applying more than four years since graduating from an approved program or leaving the Armed Forces may still qualify with proof of relevant work experience.
Like the AAMA exam, the RMA is also computerized and consists of 210 multiple-choice questions evaluating knowledge in similar areas. Candidates have up to two hours to complete the exam covering four general categories. The exam includes 46 questions in anatomy and physiology, 75 in administrative office responsibilities, 83 in clinical practices and 58 in patient interaction protocols. A pass or fail score is immediate, and four lifetime attempts are allowed with no waiting period between each.
Recertification is required every three years and requires submitting ongoing education credits based on a proprietary point system. AMT certification comes with other benefits, including online learning and networking opportunities.
Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)- NCCT
The , or NCCT, is an independent organization that, like the AMT, offers certifications for a broad range of healthcare providers from ECG technicians to insurance and coding specialists.
Medical assistants qualify for certification via the NCMA exam by:
- Being a student in an NCCT-authorized medical assisting program
- Graduating from an NCCT-approved program within the past five years
- Being a high school graduate with at least 4160 hours of supervised experience as a medical assistant in the last sixty months.
- Completing a military medical assistant program or equivalent training within the last five years
The NCMA evaluates candidates on their expertise across seven content categories, including:
- Medical Procedures
- ECG and Diagnostic Testing
- Office Procedures
- Medical Office Management
- Insurance, Billing and Finance
- Law and Ethics
There are 150 scored questions, and 15 unscored items to assist exam designers with quality control. Most are multiple choice, but a few questions are drop-and-drag and graph interpretations. Skill demonstrations are not part of the test. NCCT works with industry insiders to select topics based on national job analyses, so questions are relevant to employer expectations.
Candidates are allowed three hours to finish the exam, and pass/fail results are immediately available. Annual recertification is required, but NCCT offers certificate holders access to volumes of online learning modules.
Certification is valuable to medical assistants in so many ways. For graduates who are apprehensive about starting their first job, it validates their knowledge and boosts their confidence while helping build the credibility and value of the profession. To employers, it demonstrates expertise and devotion to medicine while offering a sense of security that the staff they hire are highly skilled.
Did learning about what a medical assistant certification is interest you? Meridian College offers hands–on Medical Assistant training from experienced school faculty who know how to prepare you for the daily challenges you’ll face on the job. From assisting doctors with patients to important administrative tasks, our experienced Medical Assistant program teachers will train you for a rewarding new career.
Contact Meridian College today to learn more about becoming a medical assistant.