Who helps the sick get better? Ever since you were a kid, you’ve heard “nurse” or “doctor” in answers to that question. But the enormous endeavor to heal people doesn’t belong solely to one or two careers. In fact, it takes many different professionals with many different roles to care for patients. Two of these roles belong to medical assistants (MAs) and patient care technicians (PCTs).
These two careers allow you to work closely with patients and make a difference in their lives. But MAs and PCTs have their own distinctive jobs in healthcare. We gathered the essential information about each position, so you can make an informed decision about which suits you best.
MA vs. PCT: Job duties
A medical assistant is trained in both clinical and administrative work, with responsibilities in both the exam room and the front office.
The clinical side of medical assisting involves recording vital signs, compiling patients’ medical histories and administering medications under the direction of a supervising physician. Administrative duties include greeting patients, scheduling appointments and assisting patients in completing insurance forms.
A patient care technician is mainly focused on working closely with patients, in conjunction with nurses. PCTs, sometimes referred to as nursing assistants, help perform basic care for patients, such as assisting them in using the restroom, serving meals or changing bedding. They may also monitor vital signs and provide emotional support to patients and families.
MA vs. PCT: Skills needed
We used real-time job analysis software to examine over 280,000 MA and PCT job postings from the past 12 months.1 The data revealed five top technical skills employers are seeking from candidates in each position. Here’s what we found.
Top skills for medical assistants:
- Patient care
- Vital signs measurement
- Appointment setting
Top skills for patient care technicians:
- Patient care
- Vital signs measurement
- Patient assistance
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
You can see the crossover areas of these two positions, as well as some of their differences in the skills employers are looking for.
MA vs. PCT: Education requirements
The medical field hosts a variety of careers featuring a whole spectrum of educational requirements. Becoming an MA or a PCT requires a fairly small time commitment compared to other healthcare careers.
While MAs aren’t technically required to earn a college degree, most graduate from some type of postsecondary program, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A Medical Assisting Diploma program can be completed in as few as 12 months.2
To become a PCT, you’ll need to have a high school diploma and complete a training program, according to the BLS. After completing a training program, or acquiring equivalent work experience, you can then become a certified patient care technician/assistant (CPCT/A) by passing an exam. Once employed, you’ll likely be required to undergo some sort of on-the-job training as well.
MA vs. PCT: A day in the life
As an MA, your duties begin when you check a patient in, and end when you help them schedule their next appointment. In between, you may lead patients to the exam room, register vital signs and record medical history. Some medical assistants also administer injections or medications, depending on the state. After patients have been seen by the nurse or physician, you may be responsible for explaining medications or drawing blood for testing.
Location and hours depend on where you choose to work. The BLS reports that a majority of MAs work in physicians’ offices, meaning they generally have regular, 9–5 work hours. This can be a big advantage if you have commitments outside the workplace.
PCTs don’t have as many behind-the-scenes duties as MAs. Your primary focus would be on your patients, under the supervision of nursing staff. Your duties would largely depend on patient needs.
Saul Pimentel, patient coordinator (another name for a PCT) at Marina Del Rey Hospital starts each day by printing schedules and bringing them the front desk. “By then, several departments are waiting for me to transport patients, so I run to the CT scan, MRI, nuclear medicine, ultrasound and radiology [departments] to catch up on patient transportation,” Pimentel says.
The rest of Pimentel’s day involves making beds, helping nurses lift and clean patients, answering phones and scheduling appointments. “Whatever needs doing; I jump in and help. I am a patient coordinator, so that includes everything. And, of course, I love making people smile throughout the day.”
Both MAs and PCTs can be found in many different healthcare settings. April Estrada is a home hemodialysis PCT. “I work with the patients that do their treatments at home and train them (and their caregivers) to be able to do so.” Estrada prepares the treatment area and trains patients on how to do everything once they leave the care center and finishes with paperwork.
Most PCTs are employed in nursing homes or hospitals, according to the BLS. Because those locations operate around the clock, chances are good that you’ll work nights and weekends. The nature of these facilities will also provide you with more of an opportunity to develop meaningful, long-lasting relationships with your patients.
MA vs. PCT: Salary and job outlook
The median annual medical assistant salary in 2016 was $31,540, according to the BLS.3 Employment of medical assistants is also projected to increase 29 percent through 2026, which is much faster than the average rate for all occupations.
The BLS attributes the growth to an aging population that will put more demand on doctors, who, in turn, will need more assistants. It’s also projected that MAs will begin to replace workers like licensed practical nurses (LPNs), who are more expensive to employ.
In contrast, PCTs earned an average salary of $26,590 in 2016, and employment of PCTs is expected to grow 11 percent through 2026.3 Like MAs, this faster-than-average job growth is attributed to an aging population who will inevitably have more healthcare needs as they grow older, the BLS says.
PCT jobs aren’t expected to grow quite as fast as MA jobs because places like nursing homes are funded by the government. The number of future jobs will be impacted by the funds available, according to the BLS.
MA vs. PCT: The bottom line
The comparisons provided above should give you a better understanding of the duties of a medical assistant versus a patient care technician. Both positions will allow you to work directly with patients while playing an important role in the healthcare system.
“Being able to see the progress patients and caregivers make is my favorite part of the job,” Estrada says. “I love seeing the satisfaction on their faces and knowing that I’m making a difference by providing my support and expertise, so they can have a better quality of life.” Both MAs and PCTs interact with patients for most of their days. For that reason, the best—and most satisfied—professionals in these careers bring compassion and kindness to their work.
The bottom line in both of these careers is that you make a difference in people’s lives every day. MAs and PCTs see patients at some of their most vulnerable and frightened moments. Think a career as a medical assistant could be right for you? You’ll want to read our article, “7 Signs You Would Thrive in a Medical Assisting Career.”
If you’d rather learn more about other healthcare career options that don’t require an extensive amount of training and education, check out this article, “The Ultimate List of Healthcare Jobs You Can Launch in Two Years or Less,” for an excellent run-down of healthcare career options that you can get started relatively quickly.
1 Source: BurningGlass.com (analysis of 286,146 MA and PCT job postings, Oct. 01, 2016 – Sep. 30, 2017)
2 Time to completion is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and courses completed each term.
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed April 4, 2018] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on May 2013. It has since been updated to reflect information relevant to 2018.