Medical assistants manage clinical and administrative tasks in doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals. There’s never a dull moment. It’s a broad role with wide-ranging responsibilities, but what exactly do medical assistants do, and as a medical assistant, will you take vital signs? The answer is yes, so let’s find out more.
What Do Medical Assistants Do?
Medical assistants are frontline healthcare staff with training in both clinical and clerical functions. They bridge the gap between the exam room and the medical office, supporting colleagues while helping patients navigate a complex healthcare field. A medical assistant’s duties include:
Medical office assistants do most of the scheduling in doctor’s offices, but they don’t have the necessary training to know which patients need priority care and how long visits will take. Medical assistants use their clinical expertise to assist with scheduling, triaging patients according to their symptoms and how urgently they need care.
Medical assistants are among the first team members to welcome patients for their visit, escorting them to treatment areas and making them comfortable. As a medical assistant, you will complete select clinical and recordkeeping tasks before the provider arrives so that the patient and doctor can make the most of their time together.
Updating Medical Records
Updating medical records at each visit is essential for continuity of care. Medical assistants reconcile medications and allergy lists so that providers know about changes since the patient’s last visit. Having the most up-to-date information possible is critical for making sound medical decisions.
Doing Diagnostic Tests
Medical assistants can perform diagnostic tests, like EKGs, without close supervision. It’s a source of revenue for private practices and a convenience for patients who no longer need to visit the hospital to have tests done.
Assisting with Procedures
Doctors that perform in-office surgical procedures need an extra pair of hands to assist. Medical assistants set up equipment, pass instruments and monitor the patient’s comfort and safety.
A medical assistant can perform limited treatments on stable patients, such as dry dressing changes and skin staple removal. They also ensure that all shared equipment is properly sanitized, disinfected or sterilized between visits.
Phlebotomy is a sought-after skill for medical assistants. You’ll learn what you need to know in a vocational medical assisting program to perform basic blood draws.
Stocking Treatment Rooms
Medical assistants make sure providers have all the supplies they need by stocking exam rooms at the beginning of their shift. As a medical assistant, you’ll also assist colleagues with inventory management and ordering.
As a medical assistant, you’re the physician’s liaison. You can’t give medical advice, but you can help patients understand the doctor’s recommendations and answer general questions about timely health topics within your scope of practice. Medical assistants are usually responsible for walking patients through pre- and post-procedure care instructions.
Taking Vital Signs
Taking vital signs is among a medical assistant’s most important responsibilities. Let’s take a closer look at which vital signs you’ll take, how they’re performed and how they contribute to patient wellness.
Which Vital Signs Does a Medical Assistant take?
Medical assistants train to take the four primary vital signs, temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure; plus, three secondary vital signs, height, weight, and peripheral oxygen saturation.
Which vital signs are included at each visit depends on the type of practice in which you work? In a cardiology office, for example, peripheral oxygen saturation may be taken at each visit. In a bariatric clinic, weight is a more important clinical measure of health.
How Does a Medical Assistant Take Vital Signs?
Vital signs can be obtained in one or more ways using manual or electronic equipment.
Vital Sign #1: Temperature
Temperature is taken using one of these five methods:
Oral – a patient’s oral temperature is taken under their tongue. Digital thermometers come with disposable covers and are accurate to a tenth of a degree if properly placed. Glass thermometers are filled with toxic mercury and are no longer used. Patients shouldn’t eat or drink for at least ten minutes before having an oral temperature taken.
Temporal – temporal thermometers measure temperature over the temporal artery on the side of the forehead. A kid-friendly method, it takes just seconds. The results are less accurate, however, so it’s used only for screening.
Aural or Tympanic – aural thermometers are inserted in the ear, measuring the temperature of the eardrum using infrared light rays. More accurate than temporal temperatures but less intrusive than oral thermometers, they’re a favorite among pediatricians.
Rectal – rectal temperatures are the most accurate, but they’re risky. Inserted into the rectum, they can damage sensitive tissue and cause bleeding. Medical assistant will rarely take rectal temperatures unless a precise reading is necessary.
Vital Sign #2: Heart Rate
Arteries close to the surface of the skin near the wrist, ankle and groin pulsate with every heartbeat. Medical assistants measure the heart rate by counting the number of beats for 15 seconds and multiplying the count by four. They also note the rhythm of the beat, reporting skipped or irregular beats to the physician for follow-up. Peripheral oxygen meters also display a pulse reading.
Vital Sign #3: Respirations
The respiratory rate is evaluated by watching patients inhale and exhale. Anxiety can alter changes in breathing patterns, so it’s best done without the patient realizing it.
Vital Signs #4: Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is the force blood puts on artery walls. It’s measured with a manual sphygmomanometer and a stethoscope or a digital meter. The top number, or “systolic” BP, is captured when the heart beats. The lower, or diastolic BP, is measured when the heart relaxes. Together, they give the doctor insight into the patient’s cardiovascular health.
Vital Sign #5: Height
Height is one of the two measurements used to calculate Body Mass Index (BMI) and weight is the other. BMI is used to calculate medication dosages and evaluate the patient’s risk for certain conditions. Consistency is essential for accuracy, so medical assistants should measure height the same way each time.
Vital Signs #6: Weight
Weight is also used to determine drug dosages and to monitor cardiac, metabolic, developmental, and gastrointestinal disorders. Like height, using the same method each time, such as weighing the patient on the same scale, with or without shoes, ensures consistent results.
Vital Sign #7: Oxygen Saturation
Checked with a fingertip electronic device known as a pulse oximeter, peripheral oxygen saturation measures circulation in the extremities. Readings from 95-100 percent are normal and indicate that the patient’s cardiopulmonary system is stable.
In addition to measuring vital signs, you’ll also help patients with home monitoring plans. Some medications, for example, are taken or not taken when blood pressure, heart rate and weight are within a specific range. You’ll use your clinical know-how to demonstrate how vital signs are taken and recorded, offering tips for getting accurate readings.
Vital Signs and Early Detection
Doctors use vital signs to diagnose and treat a wide range of illnesses, including:
Infections affect vital signs body-wide, first causing an increase in body temperature, usually followed by an increase in blood pressure and heart rate as it worsens. In their final stage, infections can cause organ failure, so catching them early gives patients the best chance for survival.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a leading risk factor for heart failure, kidney disease and stroke. Readings below 120/80 are ideal. High blood pressure is divided into four stages that are progressively urgent to treat. Called the silent killer, life expectant increases if treatment for hypertension, including lifestyle changes and drug therapy, is initiated early.
The normal adult respiratory rate is between 12-16 breaths per minute, but patients with lung disease breathe more often to inhale more oxygen. Combined with low peripheral oxygen saturation, a respiratory rate above 20 may indicate a pulmonary condition, such as COPD, for which early treatment is key.
Changes in heart rate, respiration, and peripheral oxygen saturation can indicate heart disease, but an increase in weight not driven by extra calories is a hallmark of heart failure. As the cardiac muscle weakens, it’s increasingly unable to keep fluid levels in the body stable. A gain of a pound or two can mean lifesaving medication adjustments are needed.
A decrease in height is an indicator of osteoporosis, loss of bone mass and density, in post-menopausal women. As the bone mass decreases, the vertebrae shrink. Loss of an inch or more of height in a year signals that a bone density test is needed. Early detection is critical for effective treatment.
Atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, is a common but potentially fatal abnormal rhythm during which the upper chambers of the heart don’t beat in rhythm. Like other dysrhythmias, it’s often first detected when taking a patient’s pulse.
Because the asynchronous beating slows down blood flow, patients may report symptoms such as dizziness and shortness of breath. Sluggish blood flow through the heart may also allow clots to form. People with A-fib have a 3-5 times greater risk for stroke.
The thyroid gland makes two hormones that regulate human growth, development, and metabolism. If it makes too much or too little, the effects can show in a patient’s vital signs.
Having too little thyroid hormone, known as hypothyroidism, results in weight gain, a lower body temperature and sensitivity to cold. High levels of thyroid hormone, called hyperthyroidism, results in heart palpitations and a rapid pulse.
Everything medical assistants do is patient-focused, but few tasks are as impactful to patients’ well-being as taking accurate vital signs. If you are ready to help others and perform a vital service for the community then becoming a medical assistant may be a good career path for you.
Medical Assistant Diploma
The 8-month Medical Assistant program is designed to teach you the administrative and clinical skills necessary to work in both back and front office settings of a doctor’s office or similar setting.
After completing the diploma program at this El Cajon | San Diego Medical Assistant School, you have the option to continue in the Medical Assistant, Associate of Applied Science program. The associate degree can be completed in an additional 6 months and contains general education courses, along with advanced medical assisting courses and classes in electrocardiography and phlebotomy.
Contact us today to learn more about medical assisting career opportunities offered at ATA College.