Starting a career as a medical assistant is a smart move. A growth rate of 29 percent between 2016 and 2026 (as projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), definitely makes it a career path worth considering. As Baby Boomers age, and as the increased demand for preventive medical services increase, more assistants will be hired to handle common administrative and clinical tasks.
Okay, so working as a medical assistant is a good career move, but how do you know which certification route is right for you? First, it’s important to understand that most states do not actually require certification for medical assistants. Often, you just need to have a high school diploma or equivalent, and you can get on-the-job training with some employers. However, having some sort of certification is the norm these days, and physicians’ offices that don’t require graduation from an accredited medical assisting program and a certification credential are quite rare. Check with your state to see what the requirements are for working as a medical assistant before you enroll in any training program.
Medical Assistant Career Commonalities
Figuring out whether the RMA or the CMA certification is right for you means that you need to consider a number of factors. One of the most important characteristics that these designations have in common is that they require you to graduate from an accredited medical assisting program first. An accredited program is one that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
These programs are offered at a variety of organizations, such as vocational schools, colleges, high schools, colleges, and other institutions. You may also be able to take online classes and complete an on-site clinical portion of the course, but note that some states may not allow this kind of course, so find out from your state what its requirements are before you enroll.
These courses usually take between 9 and 12 months to complete. However, more in-depth associate degree programs are also available and take two years to finish.
Another commonality is that they both prepare you to work as a medical assistant. That is, you can work as a medical assistant with either credential. Whether you get an RMA or CMA, you will be nationally-recognized as being able to work as a medical assistant.
CMA & RMA Differences
The CMA is a credential provided by the American Association of Medical Assistants, while the American Medical Technologists organization offers the RMA. The RMA certification is a newer certification, and it is generally seen as a newcomer to the field of medical assisting credentialing. The CMA was the first one offered in the field, and it is typically recognized by more employers and state governments. In fact, some states, like Connecticut, only recognize the CMA, but most states will accept either the CMA or the RMA.
Additionally, the CMA credential is good for five years before you have to renew it, but you will have to renew the RMA every three years. You will need to take continuing education courses to renew your RMA as well as pay a $50 annual fee for membership renewal in the American Medical Technologists organization to keep up your RMA certification. For your CMA, you can pass an exam or take continuing education courses to renew your certification.
To be eligible to take the CMA exam, you have to have graduated from an accredited program. For eligibility to take the RMA exam, you can have graduated from an accredited program, completed an approved military course, have the right work experience, or you can have been an instructor. Details for eligibility are available on the AMT and AAMA websites.
The difference between the costs of the exams is negligible at about $5 at the time of writing. The RMA test costs $120, and the CMA test is $125 if you are a member of the AAMA or are a finishing student or recent graduate of an accredited program. If not, you pay $250. If your credential has lapsed, your cost incurs an extra $50 fee.
As far as which test is harder, you might find that the CMA is a bit longer and has more word problems, which may be more difficult for you. However, this is information taken anecdotally from some people who have experience with both tests. There is no official word on which of the tests is more difficult. They will both cover areas like anatomy and physiology, bookkeeping, administrative duties, filing insurance, basic first aid, medical law and regulations, medical terminology, patient advocacy, ethics, etc.
In general, you may be able to expect to earn a somewhat higher salary with a CMA than an RMA. An RMA has an average hourly pay rage of $14.62, at the time of writing, according to PayScale.com. The lowest tenth percentile earns $11.58, while those in the ninetieth percentile earn $18.37. The total pay, which can include bonuses, profit sharing, and commission, can be between $24,179 and $38,867.
PayScale states that the average hourly pay rate for a Medical Assistant (Certified) is $14.94, and that the lowest 10th percentile earned $11.73 per hour, and the ninetieth earned $19.03 per hour. Including bonus, profit sharing, and commission, the pay rate is between $24,564 and $40,400 per year. However, note that this designation does not indicate whether “certified” means just having the CMA designation. Also, it is possible that CMAs report their earnings more often to organizations like PayScale.
If you work in a general or surgical hospital, you can typically expect to earn more than you would in clinics or other medical facilities that employ medical assistants.
So Which is Right for You?
Your particular situation will dictate which test is right for you. Consider where you live and if you are likely to move states any time soon. If you are, you should consider the CMA or getting both the CMA and RMA. That way, you are more competitive in any job market you move to. Generally, the CMA is more widely-accepted, but if the employer you want to work for accepts RMA, then you might consider doing only that certification. However, if you don’t get a job with that organization, if you move unexpectedly to another state, or if you have to leave that job, you may find it more difficult to find a position with just an RMA certification. Another way to figure out which is right for you is to see which certification(s) your state accepts.