Introduction to Medical Assisting and Similar Careers

Nurse assisting, medical information management, physician assisting, and health service administration are all job fields that can be roughly described as “medical support.” Most people with these jobs don’t treat patients directly, though they may regularly interact with patients, but they do manage other parts of the health system that make it possible for doctors and nurses to do their jobs more easily.

Certified Nursing Assistants/Aides

If you want to enter the healthcare field as a certified nursing assistant (often known as a CNA), one of the first steps you need to take is proper training. Enroll in a certified nurse’s assistant program at a local community college, through an organization such as the Red Cross, take a course online or enroll at a local healthcare facility.

Many programs will demand time in a healthcare facility to obtain hands-on training before the nursing assistant is deemed qualified to take the certification examination. Even online study programs for the certified nursing assistant’s certification will require hands-on study at a healthcare facility near you. Usually the school will act as a liaison between students and the facility so that the work-study program is accomplished smoothly.

In addition to a high school diploma or GED, you’ll need to complete a six- to twelve-week CNA training program. Once you have met the instruction hours training requirements and have graduated from your nursing assistant program, you usually will have a period of 120 days to take the final exam. This exam will include sections for both clinical and written examples of problem-handling skills. Use web sites such as the CNA Exam Study Guide to learn more about the exam so you’re prepared. Once you pass this final exam, you will receive your nursing assistant certification.

Certified nursing assistants earn about $13 an hour, though the top 10% of them earn significantly more than that, depending on location and level of experience.

There is wide variance in the number of CNAs employed from state to state in the U.S. The chart below displays the numbers of nurse’s aides, orderlies, and assistants in the top five states.

Medical Information Technicians and Managers

Managing patient information, billing records, treatment histories, prescriptions, and the host of other data that are generated by medical facilities requires sophisticated computer systems and people who know how to use them. There are whole associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees dedicated to teaching people how to securely manage sensitive and private medical data.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical information techs usually have associate’s degrees. Although there is no legal requirement for licensure in this field, employers prefer credentialed workers because of the highly sensitive nature of the data in question. Becoming a health information tech requires knowledge in database security, healthcare information standards, medical terminology, and clinical classification and coding systems.

Medical information techs earn about $31,000 per year, though they can earn much more working in the right facility.

Physician’s Assistants

Confusingly, physician’s assistants (PAs) are not the same as medical assistants or nursing assistants, and PAs earn significantly more money than either of the others. A PA’s job is to perform similar diagnostic and treatment duties as an actual doctor, but since a PA is not an MD, they must always work under the direct supervision of a physician. General duties of a PA include:

  • Ordering x-rays, blood work, and other laboratory analyses for diagnostic purposes.
  • Taking medical histories, vital signs, and other relevant information from patients.
  • Treating minor injuries, applying bandages or splints, and recommending medicines.

Physician’s assistants must complete an accredited program of study and pass a governmentally sanctioned exam before being allowed to work. Training for PAs takes two years for full-time students, and usually results in an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. 100 hours of continuing education is required every two years, and recertification is required every six years. PAs can advance in their careers by becoming certified to teach future PAs, or specializing in a field of medicine such as pediatrics, internal medicine, or primary care.

PAs earn about $81,000 annually, but can achieve higher paychecks by specializing, gaining years of experience, or working in a high paying area or facility.

Medical Assistants

This career is at the opposite end of the medical support spectrum from a physician’s assistant. Little or no training is required to become a medical assistant, and the pay and amount of responsibility reflects this lack of required credentials. Medical assistants perform routine tasks such as:

  • Clean and sterilize instruments and medical equipment, and tidy examination rooms.
  • Give medications to patients on the instructions of a doctor.
  • Collect laboratory specimens (blood, tissue, etc.)
  • Measure height, weight, and vital signs of patients before they see the doctor.

Medical assistants earn around $28,300 annually, and the primary way of advancing in the career is to earn a degree and become a CNA or physician’s assistant, as medical assistants without further education have scant prospects for promotion.

Can CNAs Become Registered Nurses?

The gap between being a certified nursing assistant and being a registered nurse is actually quite large, but for a dedicated CNA who wants to stay in the medical world but earn more and emphasize patient care over medical staff support, becoming an RN can be a great career move.

Becoming an RN requires at least two years, and potentially four, of education. There are diploma programs that can prepare students for a nursing job, but getting an associate’s or bachelor’s degree will be much better for anyone’s long term career prospects. RNs also undergo intense scrutiny before they are allowed to practice. The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is a rigorous test for which aspiring nurses prepare months before they actually have to take it. Once a student passes it though, their way is paved towards a lucrative and rewarding career as an RN. Just a few of The BLS’s encouraging data points about RNs include:

  • Job Growth by 2018: Job numbers are expected to leap from 2,618,700 to 3,200,200 by 2018, a 22 percent increase.
  • Salary: The median annual earnings for RNs were $62,450 in May 2008.
  • Prospects: According to The BLS, “Most RNs begin as staff nurses in hospitals, and with experience and good performance, often move to other settings or are promoted to positions with more responsibility.”

With great salaries and job prospects in the near future, RNs-to-be have it good right now, but becoming a CNA or other medical support staffer doesn’t have to be the last stop on your career track. Working in a medical facility in any role can give you a taste for the industry and give you experience that will look good on your applications if you decide to go back to school.

Degrees, Certificates, and Other Credentials

Getting a degree or certification can give you a huge boost in the job market, and there are quite a few online options for getting started as a medical assistant, CNA, or even an RN. While the first two of those don’t actually require an associate’s degree or above, it is a good idea to get one to give yourself more opportunities for growth. The following list offers brief descriptions of the time and money requirements for earning certificates, associate’s, and bachelor’s degrees.

  • Certificate (nursing assisting): Getting certified as a nursing assistant should take three to six months, depending on how long you wait between finishing training and taking the competency exam. Training programs can cost anywhere from $1,000-3,000.
  • Associate’s Degrees: These usually take two years to complete, though 18 month programs do exist, and they comprise 45-60 credit hours. At a cost of $400 per credit hour, which is fairly common for online degree programs, a 45 hour program will cost $18,000.
  • Bachelor’s Degrees: Four years is a standard length for a bachelor’s, but accelerated programs or schools with quarters or trimesters allow some time to be cut off the end of this. A typical bachelor’s degree comprises 120 credit hours. At a cost of $400 per credit hour, a bachelor’s degree will cost $48,000, not counting costs of living and supplies such as books and a laptop.

The cost and time commitment of education can make it seem like more than it is worth, but the increase in job availability and salaries for people with degrees make the expenditure of resources well worth it in the long run. If you’re ready to start pursuing a credential that will let you become a CNA or get another medical support job you desire, click some of the linked programs below to find an online college that can meet your needs without ruining your schedule or breaking the bank.

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