Allied Health
May 24, 2024

How to Become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) in 6 Steps

A detailed primer on the education and certification requirements for becoming a certified medical assistant.

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How to Become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) in 6 Steps

A certified medical assistant (CMA) is a healthcare professional who works with doctors and nurses to provide patient care. They generally perform various clinical and administrative duties. Certified medical assistants also work directly with patients, taking vital signs, preparing them for exams, or drawing blood for lab tests. They can work in various healthcare settings, including medical offices, ambulatory care facilities, outpatient clinics, or hospitals.

There are a lot of reasons why someone might consider being a CMA. The education and training period are much shorter than for other healthcare professionals, and there are a lot of opportunities out there. Certified medical assistants can work just about anywhere, and by being a key part of the medical team, they get to help patients every day. 

If you’re ready to become a medical assistant, here’s what you need to know about becoming a certified medical assistant.

Do you need to be certified to be a medical assistant?

The short answer is: it depends. Whether you need to be certified depends on where you plan to work, the procedures you will perform, and whether employer accepts Medicare or Medicaid.

  • Washington state requires medical assistants to be certified.
  • Other states, such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona and California, require medical assistants to be certified for injections and other tasks
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) only allows credentialed medical assistants to enter information into their electronic medical records system.

That said, having a medical assistant certification can make you a more competitive job candidate, and many employers require one. Plus, medical assistants who are certified may earn a higher salary. So, while getting a certification may not be a state requirement, having one can still be very beneficial to your career.

Steps to Become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA)

1. Earn a high school diploma or equivalent. 

A high school diploma or equivalent is the minimal education you will need to enroll in most medical assistant programs. There are no specific class requirements to fulfill at this level, but taking extra or advanced classes in science, health, or biology can help prepare someone to work in the healthcare field.

2. Enroll in and graduate from an accredited medical assistant program.

If you are planning to become a certified medical assistant, you must enroll in and graduate from a medical assistant program accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

The Certifying Board of the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) also has a way for people who graduated from programs that are not accredited by the CAAHEP or ABHES to take the exam, as long as these programs satisfy the board’s requirements

Specifically, the medical assistant training program must be accredited by a body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the United States Department of Education (USDE) and be the equivalent of at least two semesters with a minimum of 560 academic contact hours.

It must also have a minimum of 160 practicum hours or 1,000 hours of medical assisting experience in an outpatient setting; award a certificate, diploma, or associate degree; and have a curriculum that includes applied mathematics, basic anatomy, pharmacology, physiology, infection control, theory and techniques of phlebotomy, and theory and techniques of intradermal, intramuscular, and subcutaneous injection administration.

You have many options when it comes to an accredited medical assisting program. There are online programs available, as well as in-person programs at colleges, technical schools, or career centers. Some of these programs may have a clinical element that will require you to work in an outpatient facility with a preceptor prior to graduating.

Medical assistant programs are usually about nine or 12 months long; when you graduate, you will likely earn either a diploma or a certificate. Some colleges may offer two-year programs where you can earn an associate degree. While an associate degree is not required to take the certification exam or work as a medical assistant, it may offer a more well-rounded curriculum that can help candidates better prepare for their career and the exam.

3. Apply for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Exam. 

To be able to take the certification exam, you must meet the eligibility requirements set forth by the AAMA. Generally, you must have successfully completed an accredited program or be close to completing an accredited program. If you meet the certification requirements, you can fill out a paper application and mail it to AAMA or apply online.

There are other exams available, including the National Healthcareer Association’s Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) exam and the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) National Certified Nursing Assistant exam, but the AAMA exam is the most widely recognized.

4.  Take and pass the CMA (AAMA) Certification Exam.

The exam covers a broad scope of topics to test knowledge across general, administrative, and medical categories. It requires a broad, thorough, and up-to-date understanding of the role of the medical assistant and an understanding of healthcare delivery.

Topics are divided into multiple sections and include the following:

  • Patient intake and discharge (vital signs, interviewing techniques, medical terminology, documentation of care, patient screenings, medical histories, wellness assessments, processing provider orders)
  • Safety and infection control (infectious agents, infection cycle, chain of infection, modes of infectious transmission, standard precautions, exposure control, medical asepsis, biohazard disposal, safety, emergency management, basic first aid, body mechanics, risk management, quality assurance)
  • Medical procedures and examinations (preparing patients, supplies, equipment, anatomy and physiology, patient instruction, surgical assisting, instruments, wound care, anatomy and physiology, specimen collection techniques, preparing specimens, processing specimens, lab quality control, lab panels and selected tests)
  • Pharmacology (medications, preparing and administering oral and parenteral medications, immunizations)
  • Legal and ethical issues (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, protected health information, consent, federal and state regulations, pharmaceutical laws, mandatory reporting, ethical standards, medical directives)
  • Communication (interpersonal relationship skills, therapeutic responses, learning styles, health care team roles, professional telephone etiquette)
  • Billing, coding, and insurance (coding applications, coverage for patient services and waivers, insurance fraud and abuse, insurance types, third-party payers, authorizations, financial terminology, patient account financial procedures, financial calculations, billing, collections.
  • Scheduling appointments and health information management (scheduling appointments, medical reception, patient registration, electronic health records)

The exam is scheduled and administered through PSI Services LLC and is available at testing centers around the county. It consists of 200 multiple-choice questions and is administered over four 40-minute sections.

Exam fees vary from $125 for members of the AAMA to $250 for non-members. Membership dues for the AAMA vary by state, but it may be worth joining if the cost of membership is less than the $250 testing fee.

To pass the exam, candidates may want to consider taking a review course or practice exams. It is important to thoroughly understand the material as the test requires candidates to apply knowledge and critically think, not just regurgitate and recall facts and information.

Test scores range from 300 to 800; the minimum passing score is 430. According to the AAMA, the pass rate for the exam is around 58%. Eligible candidates can take the exam up to three times to pass, but they must reapply and pay an exam fee each time.

5. Apply for jobs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for CMAs is projected to grow 16% by 2031, which is much faster than average. This field has plenty of job opportunities available, with more forecast to come.

CMAs can work in various places, including clinics, doctors’ offices, colleges, hospitals, laboratories, research programs, and insurance companies. Some employers may hire medical assistants to fulfill a more administrative role while others might need someone to focus more on the clinical side. 

Medical assistants can also specialize in an area of healthcare they are particularly interested or skilled in. Some possible specializations may include obstetric medical assistants, chiropractic medical assistants, ophthalmologic medical assistants, or pediatric medical assistants.

6. Maintain your certification.

Once you have your certification and are working, don’t forget to renew your certification. CMAs must recertify every five years or 60 months, either by completing 60 continuing education units (CEUS) or retaking the exam.

The AAMA offers resources for finding CEUs on its website. CEUs for renewing the certification must be broken down into 10 administrative CEUs, 10 clinical, and 10 general, with the remaining 30 being a combination of clinical, administrative, or general content areas. The AAMA also specifies that at least 30 of the required 60 credits must be AAMA-approved.

Anyone who allows their medical assistant certification to expire can reactivate it by submitting the appropriate CEUs or retaking the certification of the exam for up to three months after the expiration date. If a credential is expired for longer than three months, they must retake the exam to renew.

FAQs

How long does it take to become a certified medical assistant?

Depending on the program you choose, it can take anywhere from one to three years to become a certified medical assistant. If you are doing a program part-time, it can take even longer. 

If you enroll in an accredited program that only takes a year to complete and sit for the exam immediately after graduation, you may be able to complete the process in as little as a year. On the other hand, if you enroll in a two-year program at a community college because you want to get an associate degree, it will take longer.

What are the requirements to take the certification exam?

There are multiple requirements for the exam. Candidates must meet the criteria of one of the following three eligibility categories: 

Category 1

Students completing an accredited medical assistant program or who have recently graduated. Category 1 candidates can sit for the exam up to 30 days before they complete their formal education or apply to take it within a year of graduation. 

Category 2

Candidates who graduated from an accredited program more than 12 months ago. As long as these candidates graduated from a program that was accredited during their enrollment or graduated from a program within 36 months before it became accredited, they are eligible to apply for the exam. 

Category 3

CMAs applying for recertification. These candidates must have passed the CMA certification exam and can choose to retake the exam instead of completing the required CEUs every 60 months.

What is the difference between CMA and CNA?

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) and a CMA have many overlapping job duties, but they are two very different professions. 

As mentioned, CMAs have clinical and administrative tasks. They may schedule appointments, maintain patient medical records, and assist with billing while also being required to perform patient care duties, like drawing blood for lab testing, performing EKGs, recording vitals, or assisting nurses and doctors with exams. 

CNAs work under the direct supervision of licensed nurses and typically provide more hands-on patient care than a certified medical assistant. For example, a CNA may bathe, dress, and feed patients, assist patients with transfers from bed to a wheelchair, or help them walk down the hall or to the bathroom. 

Both careers required a minimum of a high school diploma to begin a training and education program. As mentioned, CMA programs can last anywhere from nine months to two years, and they learn aspects of the healthcare system that CNAs may not, like insurance and billing coding, in addition to medical terminology, lab techniques, and anatomy.

CNAs must complete an accredited training program accredited by their state’s board of nursing and are much shorter than a CMA program, lasting between three and 12 weeks. CNA programs are more focused on patient care and can include topics like personal care, body mechanics, nutrition, safety, ethics, and infection control.

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