Medical assistants are essential to patient care in the field of health care. These individuals perform both administrative and clinical duties. On the administrative side, certified medical assistants update and file medical records, fill out insurance forms, schedule appointments, and handle billing, among other duties.
The medical assistant field is one of the fastest growing career choices in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are several reasons for this growth.
The main reason is the aging Baby Boomer population. As this segment of the population ages, more and more medical services will be in demand. Practices will expand and need more assistants and support workers. In addition, more patients have access to health insurance due to federal health legislation. This increase in the number of patients will cause an expansion in health care facilities. Technology is also creating new areas in need of medical assistants, such as electronic health records.
The medical assistant field is a relatively high-paying field, with the median annual wage being $29,370 in May 2012.
While the job market for medical assistants is expanding, it’s not as simple as applying at a doctor’s office or hospital. Most states don’t have formal requirements for a person to become a medical assistant. However, many health care employers want their medical assistants to graduate from an accredited program and be CMA (AAMA) certified. In order to become certified, a prospective medical assistant must take a comprehensive exam.
What is the CMA (AAMA) Exam?
The CMA (AAMA) exam tests a prospective medical assistant candidate on various aspects of the profession, in order to prove knowledge and competency. Candidates must have a comprehensive understanding of health care today in order to pass the exam.
How comprehensive is the exam? The test consultant for the exam is the National Board of Medial Examiners. The NBME develops and manages the United States Medical Licensing Examination, which demonstrates that a physician is qualified to practice medicine.
A medical assistant candidate’s exam score is based on the number of correct answers given in the examination. The Certifying Board of the AAMA conducts a study to set the minimum score for passing the exam. Every three years, the board conducts this exercise, which uses randomly selected CMAs, to set the minimum score. The current minimum passing score is 425.
There are three categories for a candidate to be eligible to take the exam. The first is completion of a medical assistant program. This program must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Graduates from one of these programs are trained in many areas, which can be divided into two main categories – administrative and medical. Within those two areas, the exam covers the following topics:
- Medical terminology
- Coding and related insurance processing
- Computer instruction
- General office procedures as related to health care
- Patient relations, including legal and ethical procedures
- Clinical practices and diagnostic procedures
- General knowledge of human anatomy, physiology and pathology
Program graduates must take the test within 12 months of graduation. Graduates can take the exam before their program’s completion, but not more than 30 days beforehand. Also, candidates who graduated from a program and haven’t passed the exam within 60 months of completing the program will no longer be eligible to take the exam. Candidates have three opportunities to pass.
The second category is a person who graduated from a program before Jan. 1, 2010. The final category is a candidate seeking recertification. The medical assistant credential must be recertified every 60 months.
Applying for the Exam
Once a candidate is eligible, there are a few things to do in order to apply for the exam. First, the candidate must have appropriate documentation of eligibility. Review all of the policies and information regarding the exam. Submitting an application means that a candidate agrees to all the terms and provisions of the applicant agreement. Next, candidates select a 90-day testing period, which determines when the candidate should apply for the exam.
Once the candidate has all of his or her documentation in order, reviewed the policies, and selected a testing period then it’s time to apply online or by mail. Candidates need to be sure email addresses will be valid for the coming year to receive important communications. Once the application is received and approved, the candidate just needs to schedule and complete the exam.
Once a candidate submits an application, a confirmation email of receipt will be sent within 30 days. A second email with Scheduling Permit instructions will be sent at least 20 days before the 90-day testing period starts.
Candidates are notified if their applications are incomplete. Most of the time, the problem is simply missing information, such as a missing accreditation code, a missing official transcript, a missing or incomplete email or mailing address, or an issue with fee payment.
The cost of the exam is $125 for members of the AAMA or graduates of CAAHEP or ABHES programs. Non-members are charged $250. If a medical assistant’s previous certification has expired, there is also a $50 reactivation fee.
Content of the Exam
The exam tests candidates on their knowledge of health care delivery. Questions are divided into three categories: general, clinical and administrative.
General and clinical knowledge questions make of 36 percent of the questions.
General test categories include basic medical subjects such as proper terminology, and an understanding of the human body including both anatomy and physiology. Psychology is also covered, since that’s an important aspect of physical health.
Additionally, because the assistant will often deal directly with patients, they’ll be expected to understand medically-relevant legal and ethical issues. Plus, communication skills will also be covered; the student must be able to conduct themselves properly in a professional environment.
Clinical instruction is another major component of the exam. Subjects covered include infection control, emergency medicine and basic first aid. Lab-based topics are also covered, including diagnostic testing and specimen processing.
Patient preparation and the student’s ability to assist the physician will also be tested. They’ll need to demonstrate an understanding of how to properly interview a patient and create an accurate medical history. Finally, they’ll need to properly understand how to administer various medications.
The remaining 28 percent of the questions revolve around administrative duties of a medical assistant.
Administrative work is another major duty of a medical assistant, and students will have to prove they understand data entry, record management and the related computer software. Their ability to effectively handle the day-to-day office work will also be tested, including their ability to process incoming messages, schedule appointments, manage finances and more.
The multiple-choice exam is administered via computer at a local Prometric test center. The exam has 200 questions that cover all of the topics of the content outline.
There is an optional 15-minute tutorial before the test begins to help candidates take the test more effectively. Once the test begins, candidates have a total of 160 minutes to complete the questions. There are four 40-minutes segments with an option of 20 minutes for breaks. All total the maximum time for an exam appointment is 195 minutes (three hours, 15 minutes).
The Test Center
Prometric test centers offer computer-based test services, and each center is set up similarly. Candidates need to arrive at the test center at least 30 minutes before the scheduled test time. Necessary documents to take the test include a Scheduling Permit and identification.
When a candidate arrives at the test center, he or she will be monitored until the exam is over. Candidates sign in, get photographed, and are assigned a locker for storing personal belongings. No personal belonging are allowed in the test area, including:
- Mechanical or electronic devices
- Book bags, backpacks, handbags, briefcases, or wallets
- Books, notes, written materials, or scratch paper
- Food, candy, gum, or beverages
Staff escort candidates to a test station and offer instruction on using the computer to take the exam. Once a candidate starts the exam, it can’t be canceled unless there is a technical problem.
Candidates who fail to appear for a scheduled exam time, or reschedule with less than two business days before the date, are charged a $45 rescheduling fee. The exam can only be rescheduled during the candidate’s 90-day testing period.
Study Resources and Tips
It takes a lot of study and preparation to take and pass the medical assistant exam. Candidates must learn the general, administrative, and clinical facets of the profession. Those seeking recertification need to review resources and make sure they are up-to-date on the latest developments in the profession. There are materials available to assist candidates in their preparation.
The AAMA’s detailed exam outline will help candidates focus on the appropriate topics. The association (and other sources) also has a practice test on medical terminology and one on anatomy and physiology.
There are also books and study guides to aid in exam preparation. These include Medical Assistant Exam: Preparation for the CMA and RMA Exams, Certified Medical Assistant Exam Secrets Study Guide, and The Kaplan Medical Assistant Exam Review.
The Quizlet website offers games and flashcards to aid in the study of medical terminology. In addition, there is a CMA Study Guide App. This iPhone app covers every section of the exam for candidates with 400 practice questions.
There are several ways to effectively study for the exam. One of the most beneficial is to take a review class. A review class provides a look at what will likely be on the test, along with strategies to answer questions in the right format.
Read the outline for exam you are taking. Make certain you are knowledgeable about each item on the outline. When you discover a topic you need to study, read about it and make notes to help you remember the information. Study often so that you won’t need to “burn the midnight oil” just before the exam. You want to be alert and at your best on exam day.
Candidates can also enlist the help of study groups and tutors through their medical assistant programs. Finally, old-fashioned study techniques, such as flashcards, repetition, and studying notes still help get a candidate ready for the exam.
After the Exam
Immediately after taking the exam, candidates are informed if they passed or failed. Within 10 weeks after the exam is completed, candidates receive an official score. Those who completed all application requirements are awarded the CMA (AAMA) credential.
Candidates who pass the exam and are sent an official notification of their scores receive a certificate and wallet card to confirm certification. These are sent within 10 weeks of official scores being mailed.
After receiving the CMA (AAMA) credential, the accredited candidate will be eligible to work in many health care settings, such as medical offices and clinics.
The duties of a medical assistant, as noted by the AAMA, includes administrative duties such as scheduling, managing records, completing insurance forms, handling billing and otherwise running the entire office. Medical duties include the ability to take medical histories and otherwise interact with patients in an informed way. Additionally, assistants will often perform basic lab test, prepare medications, draw blood, remove sutures and perform other common procedures. Sometimes, the assistant will perform more complicated procedures, but only under the supervision of another medical professional.
Finally, medical assistants must have great people skills. Anyone who desires to become a CMA candidate needs to have interpersonal skills above and beyond what is needed for a “normal” job. Medical assistants deal with patients who are most likely not at their best. Being that pleasant, caring face of a medical practice is essential.
Medical assistants are key team members when it comes to working with patients. Taking the exam and being accredited helps ensure that a medical assistant is fully prepared to assist with patient health care. It’s a growing field that needs trained and accredited employees.