Certification and the CMA (AAMA) Credential, On the Job, Professional Identity

“Medical Office Assistant” vs. “Medical Assistant”

Inconsistency in the usage of similar-sounding terms related to medical assisting is bound to cause confusion. The following question demonstrates one such instance:

Is there a difference between a medical assistant and a medical office assistant? Health systems in our region seem to use these terms to describe the same category of allied health professional.

Medical office assistant and medical assistant were used interchangeably to describe allied health professionals who are knowledgeable and competent in both clinical and administrative tasks and responsibilities in outpatient delivery settings. This meaning of medical office assistant has become less frequent in recent years, and the vast majority of federal and state statutes and regulations employ the phrase medical assistant.

In certain contexts, medical office assistant describes an individual who performs only administrative tasks in an ambulatory-care setting. Even this usage has become less frequent. Individuals who perform only administrative tasks in an outpatient environment are now more commonly referred to as administrative medical assistants or administrative assistants.

Schools continue to offer educational programs that address only the administrative aspects of medical assisting. Keep in mind that graduates of these programs are not eligible for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination. Only graduates of medical assisting programs accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) that teach both clinical and administrative knowledge, skills, and professional attributes and behaviors—and thus meet the CAAHEP- and ABHES-accreditation standards for medical assisting programs—are eligible for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination.

Certification and the CMA (AAMA) Credential

Can LPNs Take the CMA (AAMA) Exam?

I field many questions from health professionals with a variety of educational and professional backgrounds about the eligibility requirements for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination. Many wonder, If I have this knowledge and experience, am I eligible to take the CMA (AAMA) Exam? If you are one such person, consider this question and response:

I am a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Would it be possible for me to take the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination? Some employers in my area prefer to hire CMAs (AAMA) rather than LPNs.

This is my response:

Only graduates of CAAHEP- or ABHES-accredited medical assisting programs are eligible for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination. I suggest that you contact CAAHEP- and ABHES-accredited medical assisting programs in your areas and see whether they would accept some of the courses you took in your LPN program in lieu of similar courses in the medical assisting program.

Accreditation, Certification and the CMA (AAMA) Credential

Educational Requirements for Different Medical Assisting Credentials

I have received questions to the following effect: “Which medical assisting academic programs are ‘CMA (AAMA) programs,’ and which are ‘RMA(AMT) programs’?”

This is an imprecise way to frame the question.  It is better to ask what the eligibility pathways are for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination, and for the RMA(AMT) Examination.

Applicants for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination for initial certification must be graduates of CAAHEP (Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs) or ABHES (Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools) accredited medical assisting programs, and must meet the other requirements established by the Certifying Board of the AAMA. (Information regarding such programs can be found on the AAMA website.)

There are five eligibility routes for the RMA(AMT) Examination.  One of the five is the education route.  Note the following from the website of AMT:

Graduated from an accredited MA program (ROUTE 1–Education)

  • Training programs must be accredited by an agency approved by the DOE
  • Training programs must have 720 clock hours of instruction, including at least 160 clock hours of externship
  • If graduated more than 4 years ago, must also have 3 out of the last 5 years of work experience as an MA in both clinical and administrative areas

Consequently, in addition to graduates of CAAHEP and ABHES accredited medical assisting programs, graduates of medical assisting programs in schools that are accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the United States Department of Education (DOE), and that have the required clock hours of instruction and externship specified above, are eligible for the RMA(AMT) Examination.

Accreditation, Certification and the CMA (AAMA) Credential

From the AAMA Annual Conference in St. Louis, Missouri

Questions have arisen about the 60-month-after-graduation requirement for the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination, and eligibility to recertify by retesting.

  1. Individuals who have graduated from a medical assisting program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) on or after January 1, 2010, must take and pass the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination within 60 months after the date of graduation. Individuals who graduated before January 1, 2010, are not subject to the 60-month requirement. In other words, according to current policy of the Certifying Board of the AAMA, an individual who graduated from a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited medical assisting program prior to January 1, 2010, is not subject to any time limit for taking and passing the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination and being awarded the CMA (AAMA) credential.
  2. Prior to the June, 1998 administration of the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination, there were eligibility pathways other than graduation from a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited medical assisting program. Generally, those who became CMAs (AAMA) prior to June of 1998 and were not graduates of an accredited program are eligible to recertify by continuing education or retesting. Such individuals are not forbidden from recertifying by retesting because they did not graduate from a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited program.
Certification and the CMA (AAMA) Credential

Follow-up: The Specific Nature of the “Certified Medical Assistant”

Many of you came forward with anecdotes in the comments section of my last post about the importance of properly identifying “Certified Medical Assistants.”  In light of all the issues you have highlighted, I thought it important to further elaborate on the topic.

MA is Not a Medical Assisting Credential

Some medical assistants, in an attempt to abbreviate the name of the profession, refer to themselves as “MAs.”  While this is a fairly common and innocuous usage, it is best to write or state the full profession name (i.e., medical assistant). Doing so helps promote the profession, while clearing up potential confusion in the marketplace.

Concern arises when the intialism for the profession is presented after an individual’s name, giving the appearance of a credential. Only professional or academic credentials—not positions of employment—belong after the person’s name.  Furthermore, the MA credential indicates the person possesses a Master of Arts degree. No MA credential exists in the medical assisting profession, and thus the letters should not appear after the name of any person who does not possess a Master of Arts degree.

Graduation is Not Certification

Much of the confusion around my previous post comes from the similar natures, and appearances, of certificates, certification, and “Certified Medical Assistant (AAMA).” While there is some overlap between the terms, the distinctions are specific. More importantly, they carry legal implications.

The completion of a medical assisting education program—whether accredited or not—will most likely earn the graduating student a certificate, diploma, or associate degree, which represents only the individual’s completion of the program.

Certification is a process by which a professional demonstrates competency in a field. To demonstrate this competency, that person is often required to pass an examination, as is the case with CMA (AAMA) credential. However, as I have written in the past, different medical assisting credentials exist, along with different pathways to certification. Remember, certification is always a separate process. For instance, successful completion of a CAAHEP or ABHES accredited medical assisting program is the first step toward CMA (AAMA) certification, but individuals must pass the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination before they can use the CMA (AAMA) credential after their names.

Remember, employers can immediately verify their employees’ CMA (AAMA) status on the AAMA website.