How is a Career as a Medical Assistant Different Than Other Medical Careers?

With so many different professions in the medical industry, it can be difficult to understand the exact role each professional plays. This post will focus on how the education and responsibilities for a Medical Assistant (MA) differ from those of a Physician Assistant (PA) and a nurse.

Education and Certification Requirements

When considering a career in any of these fields, it is important to understand the commitments required for each academic program and if you are looking for an entry-level career or are looking to advance in your current career.

1) Medical Assistant (MA)

While many states don not have formal education requirements for MAs, you’ll find that most employers prefer to hire medical assistants who have completed an accredited training program.

The length of an MA program will depend on whether a diploma or an associate degree will be received upon graduation. To earn an Associate of Applied Science degree in medical assisting, it typically takes two years. Diploma and certificate programs usually take between 9 and 12 months to complete.

Upon graduation, students are qualified to take a certification exam.

2) Physician Assistant (PA)

A master’s degree is required to become a PA and all states require a degree from a school with an accredited PA program, as well as licensure.

PA education can take up to six years, which includes a 4-year bachelor’s degree program and a 2-year postgraduate degree. Licensure is obtained after passing an exam through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). To maintain an active license, 100 hours of continuing education is required every two years.

3) Nurse

There are various options for careers in nursing, and the education is dependent on the type of nursing degree to be earned:

  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) – Typically requires one year of school
  • Registered Nurse (RN) - Requires two years of schooling and earns an Associate of Nursing degree

Additionally, a four-year Bachelor’s degree earns the Bachelors of Nursing (BSN) designation. Nurses who complete a BSN degree may continue in a master’s degree program. A Master of Science in Nursing degree allows RNs to teach nursing at colleges and universities and to take additional courses to become a Nurse Practitioner.

Job Responsibilities (Scope of Practice)

Because the education requirements vary greatly between MAs, PAs, and nurses, the job responsibilities for each profession are also different - though there could certainly be some overlap.

1) Medical Assistant (MA)

Medical Assistants work directly under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor or, sometimes, a registered nurse.

MAs perform a combination of clinical and administrative duties that support a physician’s work. Their responsibilities can include:

  • Recording a patient’s medical history
  • Taking vital signs
  • Collecting laboratory specimens
  • Administering medications
  • Assisting with minor surgery
  • Basic patient education
  • Administrative procedures

 Additionally, MAs with an advanced certification may be able to start intravenous lines and assist with emergencies.

2) Physician Assistant (PA)

Physician Assistants provide a range of physician-level medical services under the supervision of a doctor. This often includes:

  • Taking medical histories
  • Performing examinations
  • Creating treatment plans
  • Ordering and interpreting laboratory tests and X-rays
  • Diagnosing injuries and illnesses
  • Prescribing medication
  • Treating minor injuries by suturing, splinting, and casting
  • Instructing and counseling patients
  • Supervising technicians and assistants

 Many PAs work in primary care areas, while others work in specialty areas.

3) Nurse

Nurses perform a lot of the same duties as a medical assistant, however, because they receive deeper training than medical assistants, they are able to carry out advanced levels of patient care. Nurses can:

  • Administer medications, including advanced medications
  • Manage intravenous lines
  • Provide in-depth patient education
  • Observe and monitor patients' conditions
  • Maintain records and communicate with doctors
  • Provide direction and supervision to nurse aides and home health aides
  • Provide emotional support to patients and patients' family members

 Registered nurses may specialize in a specific area of medicine, like cardiology or oncology that allows them to perform advanced skills in their chosen specialty area.

Tags: Medical, Healthcare, Medical Assistant

Kelly Schwab

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