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Many people are interested in the health care field, but find themselves dissuaded from pursuing it on account of the heavy academic workload that comes with earning a medical doctorate. What some may not realize, however, is that there are ways to get involved in the process of providing health care to those in need which aren't locked behind an M.D. degree.

For prospective students looking for a path into health care, a medical or dental assistant role could be a potential avenue.

Overview of Medical & Dental Assistant Careers

Dental assistants may sterilize equipment and prepare the work area, assist dentists during procedures, instruct patients in basic oral care, keep records, schedule appointments and work in billing.

Similarly, medical assistants may log patient histories, measure vital signs, administer injections and prepare blood for laboratory tests. The exact duties depend on the size and focus of the practice where individuals are based as well as state and local laws.

Depending on individual career goals, prospective students may seek a two-year associate's degree in their area of interest, or a one-year certification. Because laws and licensing differs by state, the certifications required to perform specific tasks may vary. It is important to check that a particular medical assistant or dental assistant health program will provide the skills and certifications necessary to practice in the state where they want to work.

Medical & Dental Assistant Programs Courses and Curricula

A medical assistant degree or dental assistant degree may offer coursework in biology, chemistry and anatomy. Additionally, students in these programs may learn terminology, instrument names and uses, patient care, record keeping and insurance and billing-related tasks. If certain machines such as x-rays will be used, students may become certified in the use of those machines.

Once a student has graduated from an accredited dental assistant program, they may be eligible to take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). There's no federal requirement for a medical assistant to be certified, though employers may prefer candidates who bring a certification to the table.

There are several other recognized medical assistant certifications:

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA): The CMA is issued by the American Association of Medical Assistants and represents accreditation from that organization's certifying board.
  • Registered Medical Assistant (RMA): The RMA is the certification issued by the American Registry of Medical Assistants.
  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA):The NCMA certification is issued by the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT), which issues certifications for several fields including medical assistants, phlebotomy technicians and postsecondary instructors.
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA): The CCMA certification is issued by the National Healthcareer Association,which, like the NCCT, issues certifications for a variety of different medical roles.
  • Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA): The CMAA is also issued by the National Healthcareer Association and focuses on more clerical and administrative tasks.

Each certification is administered by a separate organization and is typically issued after passing an exam process or graduating from an accredited medical program. It's important to note, however, that there's little qualitative difference between individual certifications other than which organization administers them. The type of certification chosen can also depend on an individual's career goals as well as the laws in the state in which they intend to work. On-the-job training may also be an additional requirement.

Career Outlook for Medical & Dental Assistants

Both medical and dental assistants are projected to see above-average job growth in the future:

  • Medical Assistants are expected to grow at an above-average 29 percent between 2012 and 2022 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A growing baby-boomer population is expected to place increased demands on preventive medical services, which are often provided by physicians.
  • Dental Assistants are expected to see a similar trend, with job growth slated to grow 25 percent between 2012 and 2022 according to BLS projections. This trend is also tied to the aging of the baby-boomer demographic, as well as new research findings linking oral health to general health. The expectation is that dentists will hire more dental assistants to complete routine tasks so that they can spend their time on more complex procedures and expand the size of their practices.

BLS numbers also project that physicians will hire more assistants as their practices expand. Assistants can perform routine administrative and clinical duties, allowing doctors to see a higher volume of patients. Additionally, new federal health legislation will potentially expand the number of people who have access to health insurance, increasing the overall demand for medical care.

"31-9092 Medical Assistants," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 11, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319092.htm
"Medical Assistants," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 11, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm
"Dental Assistants," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 11, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm
"31-9091 Dental Assistants," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 11, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319091.htm

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