Preparing for a medical assistant career

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National unemployment is still alarmingly high. With health care known to be a growing industry, people without jobs – and even those younger people with jobs – are looking to train to be medical assistants to provide themselves and their families with long-term employment stability.

“Medical assistants are in demand and are likely to stay so for the foreseeable future,” says Yvonne Burbrink, curriculum manager for Corinthian Colleges, Inc., which offers medical assistant education through its Everest College, Everest University and Everest Institute campuses nationwide. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics believes approximately 164,000 new medical assistant jobs will be created during the 2008-2018 decade. That makes perfect sense, as annual spending on health care is expected to explode to $4.5 trillion in 2019 from $2.34 trillion today.

A medical assistant career is a good choice for those who consider themselves a “people person,” since it involves a lot of person-to-person interaction.

“Medical assistants have the opportunity to get involved with patient care along with their other responsibilities,” Burbrink says. “Most medical assistant jobs are found in doctors’ offices and work directly with the patients. For someone with a caring attitude who truly wants to help people, becoming a medical assistant can be an excellent career choice.”

Steps to a successful career

* General career field research. “You should never rush into a career field blindly,” Burbrink advises. “Learn as much as you can about medical assisting before training for the job. You can start with the Internet. Many websites discuss the work of professional medical assistants, job requirements and income potential.”

Websites that Burbrink recommends include:

* The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

* O*NET Online (which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor/BLS)

* Your state’s official labor or workforce website

* Talk to career professionals. If your initial research proves promising, then the next step is to confirm your good impressions by talking to actual medical assistants.

“You can begin by talking to the medical assistants in the doctors’ office or clinic you regularly visit,” Burbrink advises. “Tell them you’re thinking of trying a medical assistant career and ask for their thoughts on the job. Encourage the medical assistants you interview to be brutally honest. You’re making a major lifestyle decision here, and you want to make sure the field is right for you.”

* Go to school for specialized career training. To make employers look at you favorably, you must show them you have the academic knowledge, technical skills, real-world experience and organized temperament it takes to do this often complex and sometimes physically taxing job.

“You will often find medical assistant training programs in conventional public colleges and universities, offered by community colleges and by private for-profit career colleges and vocational schools,” Burbrink says.

Burbrink lists the pros and cons of each type of institution:

* Traditional four-year college. These tend to be quite expensive with costs continuing to rise rapidly. Classes at state schools tend to be large and fairly impersonal. Usually, you must study a number of non-career-related subjects, so it may not be until your third year that you can finally start to study medical assisting. Plan to spend four to five years at such a college or university, depending on class schedules and availability.

* Community college. You will spend less time – and probably a lot less money – than you will at a traditional four-year college. You may or may not have to take general education courses in addition to your medical assisting classes to graduate. Due to budget cuts throughout the United States combined with the ongoing recession, most community colleges are highly impacted and it may be extremely difficult to get the classes you want when you want them. Also, classes tend to be very large and it can be difficult to get personalized attention.

* Private career colleges and vocational schools. Because these schools focus on career preparation, programs tend to be short and to the point. If you’re going to train to be a medical assistant, you won’t be taking history or foreign language classes. Also, because these schools are private, classes are usually small and offer opportunities for one-on-one time with instructors. Many also offer career assistance services. Private career colleges and vocational schools are usually more expensive than public institutions.

With this preparation, students should be ready and able to enter the workforce as medical assistants within one to two years, depending on the school they attend. “Today’s health care field offers great opportunities for those who are ready and willing to take them,” Burbrink says.