A Day in the Life of a Medical Assistant

Of all the research you do to gain an idea of what to expect from being a medical assistant, nothing will do a better job of filling in the day-to-day details as hearing from a current medical assistant.

Loretta Lyons is a certified medical assistant who works at an independently owned multi-specialty private practice, where she assists with patients ranging from children to the elderly. Her experiences won’t be exactly like yours if you pursue a career as a medical assistant, but you can probably expect to encounter many of the same tasks and challenges. She’s provided us with an account, in her own words, of what a typical day looks like for her, along with some answers to questions we suspect you were wondering about.

A Typical Day as a Medical Assistant

My day typically starts when I go in to the office. I check my emails to make sure there aren’t any high-priority issues that’ve come in for me directly. I log into our Electronic Medical Records (EMR) system and look at my schedule for the day, to see which providers I’ll be running – sometimes it’s two doctors, sometimes it’s a doctor and a physician’s assistant, or a nurse practitioner, and so on – and I print that out. I take a look at what types of appointments are coming in that day – whether each one is just a wellness visit, which is a physical; or if there’s some OB GYN work, and so on – and figure out what I’ll need to have in each exam room in order to be prepared for each one.

Next I talk with the nurse practitioner I work with, and make sure she doesn’t have anything urgent on the administrative side, like a fax that needs to be sent, or any other tasks that aren’t listed on the schedule.
Then I start in on taking patients as they come in. Each patient requires a different kind of attention depending on why he or she came in – some need injections; some need samples gathered and taken to the lab; some need x-rays; some need casts or braces; some need OB GYN testing, and so on. For each visit, I take the patient in from the waiting room; I bring him or her to the exam room; I log into our EMR system and verify basic information about the patient, like medications, allergies, changes in health or medication, recent stays in a hospital or an acute care facility, and so on; and I enter that information into our EMR system for future reference. That’s very important, because one of those issues can impact a lot of other issues that the patient might have.

I record measurements of each patient’s blood pressure, height and weight. If necessary, I have them change into an exam robe. If the patient needs to fill a specimen jar, or if it’s an OB GYN visit and the woman needs to fill in a pap, I set out the appropriate equipment for that; and once a patient has provided a specimen, I make sure the jar is labeled appropriately. Once that’s done, I let the patient know that the doctor will be with them shortly.

Sometimes I also assist in the orthopedic section. I help give cortisone injections to patients, which involves a lot of setup. I make sure the medical assistants have all the necessary syringes and medications. We also do Intrauterine Device (IUD) insertions on a daily basis. We put sutures in, and we remove them once a patient has healed. So I assist in all those procedures as necessary.

Our patient appointments are booked 15 minutes apart, so there’s not a lot of free time in between – I’m pretty much going nonstop from the time I step in the door until the time I leave. But if I have a few minutes, I log into our health portal, which is our private website where we correspond with patients via email, share and explain their test results, schedule and follow up on appointments, send necessary forms, and so on. We have to make sure we get consent forms before each procedure we perform. Sometimes I call other doctors’ offices to get reports on patients. Those are the kinds of tasks that we classify as administrative duties at my practice.

After every patient visit, I clean the exam room – I wipe everything down, put everything away, and bring specimens down to the lab. If there’s an urgent lab sample, I make sure that gets down to the lab in a timely fashion, and check to make sure the results come in quickly; those usually come through to our printer or our EMR system, and it’s my responsibility to make sure those results go straight to the patient’s medical provider, so the provider can relay those results to the patient.

I also handle prescription refills through the pharmacy – I fax them out and verify that the pharmacy received them. I have to make sure we’re following the rules about certain types of medications – narcotic prescriptions, for example, have to be picked up in hardcopy; they can’t be faxed – so I make sure we’re in compliance with rules like that. Some patients also have to get drug testing if they’re on narcotics, to make sure they’re taking the prescribed medication and dose, so I handle that too.

At the end of each day, I help clean all procedure rooms and sterilize all the tools we used that day. I help stock all the rooms with the necessary gowns, cleaning products, specimen jars, OB GYN equipment, and all the other odds and ends we’ll need the next day.

Interview with a Medical Assistant

Now you know what a typical day as a medical assistant can look like, but what about everything it takes to get there? Loretta went through medical assistant training and a job search process similar to what you’re likely to encounter. She’s been in her current position for almost five years and got her medical assistant certification three months earlier. Here’s what her experience was like.

Loretta, what factors do you think helped in landing your current position?

I think there were two main reasons why I landed this position. For one thing, I did my externship at an assisted living facility for people 55 and older. I worked with three doctors there – one of whom was the director of that facility – and that helped me gain an extraordinary amount of experience, because we were responsible not only for the basic medical assistant duties, but I was also working in the lab, drawing blood, performing EKGs – the whole gamut, really; so I really had a lot of hands-on training. And that also earned me a lot of support from the other staff members when my current employer called to ask for references.

The second part is that the medical center where I now work was opening up a new concussion clinic, and they were specifically looking for a medical assistant without much experience. So I was fortunate enough to land a position where there wasn’t too much experience required. And from there I was able to show my new employer everything I knew. I went above and beyond and branched out and offered to assist in many other areas. And that’s helped me branch out even more in terms of skills and experience. So I’ve worked in pediatrics, general medicine, the laboratory – I’ve really worked in all areas of the medical assistant field since I’ve been hired here.

How did the interview process go?

Yeah, the interviewers were geared very much toward health and nutrition, since this clinic is part of the wellness group. They were looking for somebody who had some clinical experience, which I had through my externship, so that was really beneficial. They were looking for a people person, so it definitely helped that I have a passion for helping people, and that I was able to make that come across during the interview. So with all those factors, I think I sold both my interviewers on the first round, and I was offered the position just a day or two later.

Why is it so important to be a people person in this career?

You have to be able to set your feelings aside, and not think about tough things that happened the night before. You have to remember to keep your patience and have some level of empathy toward the patients you’re helping, and keep a very positive attitude. So it’s not a job for everybody – some people might prefer to do just the administrative side, and not have a lot of contact with patients; but you really do need to be quick on your feet, and always try to have a positive attitude, because you’re dealing with people who have all kinds of illnesses and wellness concerns. People will come to you and tell you the most private things, so being a people person is definitely a plus in this industry.

Do you enjoy having all those additional responsibilities, or not?

I actually think it’s phenomenal. I feel so blessed that I’ve had opportunities to train and gain experience in so many different areas of medicine – especially since I plan on furthering my career by becoming a registered nurse or even maybe a nurse practitioner at some point. So having all this experience under my belt is great – the more information I can acquire, the better. And it’s made me super marketable, which is another key point. I’ve posted my resume on some of the medical assistant job websites, just to get feedback on where I am in my career, and I always get requests for interviews. So being able to put all this experience on my resume has definitely given me a boost in terms of my marketability as a professional.

Any advice on starting a medical assistant career on the right foot?

You may not get hired out of the gate, but my advice is just to land yourself a position somewhere and start gaining experience. Show your employer that you’re willing to work hard and keep learning, and that’ll be your opening to better positions.

And make sure you’ve got some experience prior to looking for a job. If you want to test the waters before you jump in with both feet, try getting trained as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), which may take as little as six weeks; and get some experience that way. Or just get an externship or internship as you’re completing your medical assistant program.

Most employers require at least some experience, because medical assisting isn’t just a desk job – there are a lot of legal liability issues that come into it, so the hiring process is treated pretty seriously. I went to school with a lot of people who took quite a while to land a full-time job after graduating, or had to accept really low-level positions; and that was almost always because they didn’t have enough experience. I really wish someone had told me that before I started.

And any advice on finding the right medical assistant education program?

Make sure the program is certified and accredited by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). That’s the main thing you want to make sure of before you even take the time to apply.

Investigate a variety of schools. Get some feedback from other students that have gone to the school, look for reviews online, and make sure their reputation in the news is solid. Some of these schools do get in trouble for mismanaging funds and stuff like that, so you need to be careful. And keep in mind that there’s a range of quality and price. I’ve heard of programs that cost $500 for six months, all the way up to $20,000 for higher-quality ones.

The last bit of advice I’d pass on is that some of the medical assisting programs require you to get Continuing Education Units (CEUs), which consist of ongoing training after you graduate. So you go to a career fair, or you sit in on a class about a specific topic within medicine – for example, I’m going to one about concussions – and that keeps your certification current. I think it’s a great requirement, actually, so I’m glad some programs require you to continue your training. So you should still do them, even if your school doesn’t require them.