The healthcare field is growing fast. Americans are aging, and they need more medical services than ever. The demand for medical assistants is expected to grow 23-percent from 2018 to 2028, according to the . But what exactly does a medical assistant do, and why is their role so critical?
What is a Medical Assistant’s Role?
From scheduling and billing to assisting with treatments and performing diagnostic tests, medical assistants manage a wide range of clinical and administrative responsibilities in a healthcare practice.
Most medical assistants are employed in doctor’s offices, but the role is expanding into hospitals, clinics and outpatient care centers. As support specialists, medical assistants can choose to specialize in clinical or clerical areas of medicine. But most work as generalists, collaborating closely with doctors, nurses and administrators toward a common goal, providing top-quality patient care. It’s a face-paced job, and the work is never dull.
A medical assistant’s role includes managing the switchboard, overseeing the reception area, making appointments, greeting patients, taking vital signs, measuring height and weight, obtaining biological specimen, performing diagnostic tests, assisting with procedures, updating medical records, processing referrals, billing, ordering supplies, sanitizing equipment and educating patients.
Managing the Switchboard
When patients call a doctor’s office with concerns, it’s a medical assistant’s job to direct them to the person who can best answer their questions. Taking accurate information and streamlining inquiries to the appropriate medical professional not only saves time, but it also speeds responses and improves patient care.
Overseeing the Reception Area
Long waits to see the doctor are among patients’ top complaints, but their satisfaction improves if the reception area is clean, safe and well-organized. Medical assistants ease the burden of waits by keeping patients informed about delays and assuring them their needs matter. Medical assistants can make the most of lost time by offering patients educational materials or forms to review in advance of their visit.
Scheduling patients to see their doctor sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly challenging. With both clinical and administrative expertise, medical assistants guide patients through a complicated scheduling process, verifying personal data, confirming insurance coverage and streamlining documentation, so everything is ready when they arrive. Medical assistants manage resources from time to equipment so doctors can be more productive, and patients can get the care they need.
Medical assistants are the first to greet patients when they arrive. They perform essential clinical tasks, review medication and allergy lists, and assist patients in preparing physically for their exams. As a liaison for the healthcare team, medical assistants are expected to be knowledgeable and gracious. A friendly and helpful approach inspires patients’ confidence in their care.
Taking Vital Signs
Vital signs are important health indicators. Variations in blood pressure, respiration, heart rate and temperature suggest illness, so measuring them is an essential part of every visit. Medical assistants use their clinical expertise and advanced equipment to get the most accurate readings, alerting the physician of unusual results.
Measuring Height and Weight
Changes in height and weight can reflect serious medical issues from osteoporosis, bone loss, to hypothyroidism and heart failure. Measuring height and weight is a simple clinical task, but it’s exacting. Accurate readings depend on using the same method each time.
Obtaining Biological Specimens
Laboratory tests are part of many medical visits. It’s the medical assistant’s responsibility to inform patients when biological samples are needed and why tests have been ordered. Medical assistants collect and preserve patient specimen for shipping to outside laboratories. In practices with in-house testing equipment, medical assistants may perform select analyses. In some practices, a medical assistant may work exclusively in a lab.
Performing Diagnostic Tests
Diagnostic tests such as x-rays, electrocardiograms and ultrasounds once required trips to the hospital, but now they can be performed in doctors’ offices.
Medical assistants can do some tests, such as electrocardiograms, independently, but they also help maintain equipment and assist doctors, nurses and radiography technicians with more advanced procedures.
Assisting with Procedures
Doctors perform minor surgeries from mole removals to biopsies in an office setting, but they can’t do it alone, they need an extra pair of hands to set up equipment, pass instruments, collect samples and monitor the patient. Medical assistants can independently handle aftercare procedures such as dressing changes and suture removal.
Updating Medical Records
Medical assistants are responsible for updating health information from allergy lists to insurance policy numbers at every patient visit. Doctors make treatment decisions based on that data, so accuracy is a must. Errors may result in delayed care, or worse, costly medical mistakes.
Primary care providers are the gateway to specialty services, patients need an initial exam before most insurers will pay for referrals. If a referral is made, it requires the exchange of large amounts of data between physicians. Medical assistants have the ideal blend of administrative and clinical know-how to collate and transfer sensitive health records.
Private practices typically employ billing specialists to handle payments and insurance claims, but they depend on medical assistants to properly code the services provided and supplies used at every patient visit. In small offices, medical assistants have enough training to tackle most billing and insurance processes. They may fill out claim forms, handle cash copayments, process credit cards and assist with financing arrangements.
Medical assistants use their clinical and administrative knowledge to order medical supplies. They keep exam rooms well stocked, so the items doctors need are always within reach. Since supplies are a large part of any practices budget, negotiating with vendors and creating strategies to lower costs may also be part of a medical assistant’s job description.
Healthcare settings harbor germs, so following strict infection control protocols is necessary to prevent the spread of contagious disease. Medical assistants are responsible for sanitizing exam rooms and equipment between visits to keep patients safe. Medical assistants also use the latest equipment, such as autoclaves, to sterilize instruments for procedures.
As the liaison for the team, medical assistants are a patients’ first point of contact when they need information. Medical assistants use their skills to answer questions when they can or to refer patients to the appropriate provider.
Why are Medical Assistants Invaluable?
A medical assistant’s role is to make a difference in the lives of patients by helping doctors and nurses do their jobs more efficiently. Everything they do matters, but what makes them invaluable is that they do it with empathy, compassion, professionalism, discretion, a positive attitude, a sense of advocacy, and team spirit.
Sympathy is recognizing the suffering of others; empathy is the willingness to see it from their perspective. Medical assistants work with physically and emotionally vulnerable people from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds, each has a different point of view. Looking at events through their eyes helps medical assistants better meet their needs.
Empathy senses the pain of others, compassion does something about it. As compassionate people, medical assistants are problem solvers who want to help. Whether it’s validating their concerns or holding a patient’s hand, medical assistants do what it takes to give patients what they need.
As the ambassador for the healthcare team, a medical assistant’s behavior reflects on the entire practice. By approaching patients with a courteous and thoughtful demeanor, medical assistants promote the team’s goals, enhance their reputation and inspire patient confidence in the care they receive.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, regulates how patients’ private medical information can be shared. It’s challenging to follow, but it’s a good law that reflects what patients already expected from their healthcare providers, privacy.
Medical assistants handle data from dozens of charts daily, and by being discreet, they not only obey the law, but they also afford patients the respect they deserve.
A Positive Attitude
Patients visiting their doctors can be stressed, and they’re always grateful for medical assistants who bring a positive attitude to work. By being friendly and approachable, medical assistants invite patients to ask questions and share their feelings openly.
A Sense of Advocacy
Healthcare visits can be complex, patients have more to worry about than their symptoms. How much will the exam cost? What can they expect from a new doctor? What if there’s bad news?
Patients need an advocate who understands the ins and outs of healthcare, but physicians are busy and often in a rush. Medical assistants, with both clinical and administrative skills, are the perfect team members to offer guidance.
Healthcare is a team sport, everyone has a job to do, yet they’re all interconnected. When team members work together well, including patients, it shows in the efficiency and quality of care.
All it takes to be a medical assistant is enthusiasm for helping others, vocational school training takes care of the rest. In less than a year, students can train for this critical role and enjoy a dynamic career in a growing industry. Opportunities have never been better.
Did learning about the role of a medical assistant 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.
In addition to receiving training from school instructors with real-world experience, you will also complete a school externship in a physician’s office, clinic or related healthcare facility under the supervision of a physician, nurse or health services professional to further develop your skills.
Contact Meridian College today to learn more about becoming a medical assistant.