Medical Assistant Salaries and Career Options

Name: Michelle Francis
Job Title: Medical Assistant
Where: Walnut Creek, CA
Years of Experience: 5
Current Employer: Cardiovascular Consultants Medical Group
Other Relevant Work Experience: CPR certified, BLS certified, Arrhythmia/EKG certificate
Education: Concorde Career Institute, Medical Assisting, 4.0 GPA, perfect attendance
Salary: Use the PayScale Research Center to find median medical assistant salary data.

Medical Assistant Salaries and Career Options

Medical assistants work in many health care settings and perform numerous duties while assisting providers, working with patients, and helping to keep a medical practice running smoothly. While there's no question that working in this field can sometimes be stressful, it's also true that medical assisting careers can be greatly rewarding. As Michelle Francis explains in the following interview, the typical medical assistant salary may not be huge, but being able to help patients – and sometimes family members – is worth a great deal.

PayScale: What is your medical assistant job description?

In the cardiology office, I get each patient into a room and ready to see the cardiologists and physician assistants. It is vital that I try as much as possible to keep the providers’ schedule on time – or as close to on time as possible – to ensure the patient has a pleasant and thorough visit, and so the provider has enough time to do a comprehensive evaluation of the patient. I preform patient consultation work-ups by doing electrocardiograms, blood pressure, pulse, and patient history data input into the electronic medical records system. I also monitor Coumadin flow sheets and adjust Coumadin levels for patients. I call in new prescriptions and fill prescriptions. Sometimes the prescriptions need prior authorizations, which I do, as well. The company sent me to an arrhythmia class to learn how to read electrocardiograms so I could assist in stress echocardiograms. I assist by hooking up the patient to the machine and monitor the electrocardiogram while the patient is on the treadmill and off the treadmill. If there is any change in the electrocardiogram, I print out an arrhythmia report so the doctors can see what happened. Then the doctor determines if the patient needs further cardiac testing. We have devices called King Of Hearts and Holter Monitors that I put on patients. When those devices come back, in two days to two weeks, I download the information from the disk into the computer system, which helps generate the report for the doctor to read. Pending the doctor’s diagnosis, the patient may need further testing as well.

PayScale: How did you get started as a medical assistant?

I first went to college to become a nurse, because I knew that my strength was in helping people, and I had a knack for all things medical. After taking a year of prerequisite courses at a junior college in San Diego, I found out that there was a four-year waiting list to get into the nursing program at that school. I knew I had to figure out an alternative way to get my foot in the door in the medical field. I decided that medical assisting was a good route to take. It would get me medical office experience, and also, hopefully, be exposed to new fields of medicine that I had not previously been exposed to. I enrolled in the medical assisting program at a new school and, one year later, graduated with a 4.0 grade point average and perfect attendance. Due to the fact that I was fresh out of school, no one would even glance at my resume, so I got a job with a temp agency in town. Through that agency I worked in some pretty awesome medical practices, ranging from integrative medicine to bariatric and general surgery offices. After all the new learning experiences I had in those offices, I knew my education was far from over. The only problem was that I had no interest in nursing anymore. I eventually came to work in a cardiology office, the area in medicine I had been unknowingly waiting to find. It was a perfect fit for me, and I for it.

PayScale: What do you love about your medical assistant job?

More than anything, I love the patients. One of my favorite stories is about a little lady I will call Mrs. S. Mrs. S. was one of those patients who would call the office every day, multiple times a day, and ask questions about anything and everything. She was older and living alone, and was scared a lot of the time regarding her heart condition, which is why she was compelled to call so much. The entire office staff thought she was the most neurotic, irritating person. I, on the other hand, really liked her. When she called or came in for office visits, I made sure to be extra nice to her since I knew the other staff in the office was always short with her and tried to brush her off a lot of the time. Eventually, Mrs. S would call and ask to only speak with me. If she was being roomed by another medical assistant on the day of her appointment, she would make a point to tell the other medical assistant that she wanted me to poke my head in the room to say hello to her.

One day, Mrs. S. showed up at our check-in counter. She didn’t have an appointment, but was complaining of a severe headache to the receptionist. Mrs. S. asked for me, but I was not available since I was in a treatment room with another patient. When I came out of the room, there was a huge commotion. The receptionist ran over to me and said that Mrs. S. was here, complaining of a severe headache, and that Mrs. S. had just collapsed in the waiting room. I ran and got a wheelchair, and with some help, I got Mrs. S. into the wheelchair and into a treatment room. She was sitting slouched to one side, eyes closed, breathing heavily, with her arms curled like a baby’s up on her chest, fists clenched. Mrs. S. was unresponsive to the other medical assistant while I tried to get her vital signs. Her blood pressure was sky high, and her pulse was weak and erratic. I left the room to go find a physician. When I came back to the room with a doctor, the other medical assistant told me that she kept saying my name. I grabbed Mrs. S’s hand and asked her if she could hear me. Mrs. S said my name in a whisper, then smiled, eyes still closed, body and arms still in the same position. The doctor called 9-1-1.

The paramedics came and rushed Mrs. S to the emergency room, where we all later found out that Mrs. S. had suffered a massive stroke, and had been admitted to the intensive care unit. A few weeks later, unable to walk and in a wheelchair, Mrs. S. came in for a post-hospital office visit. One side of her body was visibly injured form the stroke, and one of her eyes had lost it’s sight. Her family was with her that day and told me the only person she wanted to see while she was in the hospital being treated for her stroke was me. To this day, two years later, I am still the only person Mrs. S. asks for. That is why I love my job. I made one person’s life a little brighter.

PayScale: What are the biggest challenges you face in your medical assistant job?

One of the biggest challenges I face in my job is the patients. Yes, I love them, but they can also make me want to pull my hair out. The biggest challenge I face is with patients who are noncompliant. Cardiology is a pretty serious field to work in. If you have a bad heart, everything else suffers along with your heart. We have patients who come in on a daily basis who are either in denial or just have plain old bad attitudes. They come to see the cardiologist for one problem or another, then refuse to take their medications properly, or in some cases, at all. They think that by will alone they are going to get better. They deny that their condition is that serious, and think the doctor is a “quack.” They refuse to modify their lifestyles after they become cardiac patients. They think that they do not need to change anything because they have been living the same lifestyle their whole lives and nothing has been wrong with them until right now. I guess they forgot the part that landed them in the emergency room and now a cardiology office: their lifestyle choices. After refusing to modify their lives or take their medications properly, they then wonder why the problem, or problems, persist or get worse. The patients blame the doctor or the drug manufacturing companies or say that they are different and that is why the treatments are not working. The resistance to listening to educated professionals is mind-blowing. It always makes me wonder why the patients come to see the doctors if the patients are only going to do everything in their power to resist and argue against everything that their doctor suggests. Because, after all, it is only a suggestion, and the doctor cannot force their patients to comply with cardiac medical protocol.

PayScale: What advice would you give to someone interested in medical assisting careers?

Some advice I would give to someone interested in this field is that you will need to have a strong backbone and a soft heart. You will need the strong backbone for the hard days. The days that the doctor yells at you. The days the patients are noncompliant. The days when your personal life is getting you down and needs to be checked at the door. The days when there are disagreements between office staff. You will need a soft heart every single day. This is the most important part. The need for a soft heart is imperative to providing good patient care. Your soft heart will make you more empathetic to the patients and their journey back to health or their journey maintaining when a full recovery is not possible. A soft heart will help you listen to patients when they are scared or have concerns about their health. A soft heart will help you walk a mile in the patient’s shoes. A soft heart will make you want to do everything in your power to make the patient as happy as possible by meeting their needs as effectively as possible.

Some advice I wish would have been given to me is that the pay leaves a lot to be desired, and the medical personnel higher in the food chain will treat you like a second class citizen. Medical assisting does not pay well. For everything that we are certified to do and required to do, the pay certainly does not reflect that. Medical assistants are basically the health care provider’s wing man. We help the health care provider with medical treatments and sometimes personal tasks like getting coffee or lunch or even dry cleaning. Also, you will probably never get a raise as a medical assistant. There is no room for growth in most medical offices. Then there is the way we are treated by some other medical professionals. Medical assistants are relied upon for almost everything, yet are treated horribly. Medical assistants constantly have to deal with disrespectful comments and tone of voice from other medical staff. We have to deal with the condescending attitudes of health care professionals and their God complexes every day, without fail. We are looked down upon for not having the same level of education as nurses or doctors. Sometimes we even have to deal with abusive verbal attacks from doctors who will justify yelling at you because they think you did something incorrectly. It is not right, but it happens more frequently than people outside the medical field know. And through all this inhumane treatment, the medical assistant is required to bend over backward for the health care provider they are working for, no questions asked. There will be times it feels like indentured servitude, only with some pay.

PayScale: Do you recall any crazy moments from your medical assisting career?

The best story I have regarding medical assisting is one that is very personal to me. September 2009, my mom called me while I was on my usual three mile walk during my lunch break. She told me that the day before she and my dad were walking the dog, when my dad suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. She asked him what was wrong and he told her that his chest hurt and that he was really out of breath. He sat down for a few minutes until the symptoms went away, then they both headed back home. She said my dad was visibly shaken and remained that way for the rest of the day. I told my mom that his symptoms were a very bad sign and that he needed to get in to see his cardiologist as soon as possible. Thankfully, I worked in his cardiologist’s office. I hung up with my mom, headed back to my office, and called the private back line while on my way back. I got ahold of Mackey, one of the schedulers for our office. I explained to her what my mom had just told me. She scheduled my dad for a stress echocardiogram and an office visit with Dr. White the following week. My dad came in for his stress echocardiogram and the results came back inconclusive, which meant he needed to have a nuclear stress test. He met with Dr. White who concurred that he needed the other test, and after those results were in, they would go from there. My dad made an appointment for the nuclear stress test for Oct. 9 at 9 a.m.

The day of my dad’s stress test seemed to go perfectly fine. After he was finished with his testing he took me out to lunch as a thank you to me for pulling strings to get him in so quickly for all of his appointments, since my parents were going out of town three days later. When I returned to the office after lunch, Tom, the nuclear technician that performed my dad’s test, stopped me in the hallway. He took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and told me that my dad needs to cancel the vacation and stay put until he hears from Dr. White. I knew what that meant. I went into the room where the cardiologists read the nuclear stress tests, where I found Dr. DeVane. I told him what Tom had just told me in the hallway about my dad, and asked him if he could read my dad’s test as soon as possible. I was rooming patients that afternoon, and while I was hooking a patient up to the EKG machine, one of the receptionists came into the room and said Dr. White was on the phone and that he needed to talk to me immediately. I left the room and picked up the phone. Dr. White told me to call my dad and tell him to not eat or drink anything, not to take any of his medications, head straight to the emergency room, and to tell the triage nurse he was experiencing chest pain and that Dr. White is his cardiologist. I hung up, did just that, grabbed all my dad’s medical records, and headed over to the emergency room.

When I got there my dad had already been checked in and worked up for a cardiac catheterization that Dr. White would be preforming shortly thereafter. My mom and brother were there, too. My dad got wheeled away, and the three of us waited in the family waiting area. Two hours later Dr. White came in to get us. He told us my dad had four major blockages. My dad had a 100 percent blockage, a 99 percent blockage, and two 80 percent blockages. He was a ticking time bomb, and Dr. White said that if my parents had gone on vacation, my dad would not have made it back alive. To this day I thank God that I unknowingly got a job at my dad’s cardiologist’s office, because if that weren’t the case, we would not be celebrating my dad’s 62nd birthday with him this year.

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