Getting an entry-level job in a medical office. (Medical assisting vs. front office stuff)
August 17, 2012 9:19 AM   Subscribe

How should I go about getting an entry-level job in a medical office? Medical assisting vs. front office stuff. (Snowflakes inside.)

I'm a 34 year old male with no real work history, as I have been on a disability for my entire adult life. Previous AskMeFi questions concerned possible part-time jobs and graduate programs. I did get a part-time job for a couple of months, but SSI only let me keep about $70 before they started cutting my disability check, so I didn't get paid enough to make a real difference, let alone achieve my goal of moving out of my mom's house. Grad school remains a long-term possibility, but I'm reluctant to take on a lot of debt, and I don't want to remain in my current situation for several more years.

I am interested in getting an entry-level job in a medical office. Health care is virtually the only sector of the economy that’s growing. I know that all jobs involve stress, but something like medical assistant seems like a decent nine-to-five "lifestyle job."

*I have a B.A. in English (2007)
*I’ve taken classes in Medical Terminology Anatomy, and Pathophysiology (this Spring)
*I did a two-month internship in a doctor’s office (2011)
*I have several references (from the aforementioned internship, a web design client, and volunteer positions)

*Lack of work history. I sometimes flatter myself that I look younger than my actual age of 34, but people will still surmise that I was an older college student. In addition, I haven’t had a full-time job in the five years since I graduated college. I am hoping my design portfolio will be enough to make it look like I’ve been doing something with my life.
*Few networking contacts.

I am considering two options:

(1) A 9-month medical assisting program
(+) It includes an externship, which might lead to a job offer.
(-) Since the program is full-time, I wouldn’t be able to get a job for another nine months. I feel that getting a job is key to improving my self-esteem and getting on with my life.
(-) If I don’t get hired through the externship, I may have a hard time finding a job. I have heard from several people that employers want 1-2 years experience for even entry-level medical assisting jobs.

(2) A 360-hour online program in medical administration, medical billing, coding, and medical terminology.
(-) Since it’s self-paced, I would keep my weekdays free to apply for jobs, temping, internships, etc.
(-) Word is that online degrees lack credibility. (But maybe the stigma is less relevant for an entry-level job than for a graduate degree?)
(-) I would have to line up my own internship.

I'm not sure whether I would prefer medical assisting or front office work. I'm an introvert, but I like some social interaction. I don't like high-conflict situations or body fluids. (My impression is that medical assisting would be a relatively low-goo occupation, especially in a specialty like neurology.)

My goal is to get a "good-enough" job as soon as possible. Would I be making a mistake by doing the online program?
posted by aphorist to Work & Money (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
One thing you can do right now, today, is send a cover letter and resume to every medical office in your town telling them you're interested in getting a front office position with their practice. I did this on a whim when I moved to Southern California twelve years ago and I ended up getting, amazingly, four or five responses. Granted, I did have some medical office experience, but it's still worth a shot.

You should be aware that medical office people do not make very much money, however. You will make a lot more going the medical assistant route. I eventually left the field because there isn't much room for growth if you aren't actually taking care of patients. It's worth trying the office thing, though, to see what you think of the industry culture.
posted by something something at 9:42 AM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

What about going to school full time prevents you from getting a part time job in some related sector (like a pharmacy or receptionist at a clinic)?
posted by WeekendJen at 9:42 AM on August 17, 2012

You mention temping; are you working with a temp agency right now? If so, can you ask them to help you focus on medical front office admin work? If you can try front office work by temping, that might help you to decide which program to pursue, and of course a medical office on your resume, even as a temp position, will be helpful. Your anatomy and medical terminology courses should certainly make you a good candidate for temp (and maybe also permanent) reception positions.

There can certainly be high-conflict situations in medical front office work. People are stressed out when they have medical problems, and people are also stressed out when they have financial problems, which may sometimes be caused by their medical problems... so the usual customer service issues tend to be magnified. When both a person's health and finances are on the line, emotions run high, and as a front office person in a medical setting you need to be able to deal with that. Based on what you've said here, I think you should definitely try front office work before committing to the 360-hour program; it just might not be for you. (On the other hand, nobody loves conflict; you might find that you are actually fine with the occasional issue. Still better to try it than find out that it isn't a good fit only after the 360 hours.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:46 AM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Temping is a good way to go, you'll have to take a typing test, and probably an Excel test. If you are "power user" of any computer programs, let them know so you can test at that level. This makes you more appealing even if those programs are never used in the office.

Asking around in person at your doctors' offices is great! I have managed offices*, and I will tell you that you can mail and fax resumes all day long, but the power of being seen is important. First, it shows a greater level of commitment to getting a job. Offices think that just anyone can sit in front of a fax machine, but really doing the legwork takes gumption. It's also a bit like a mini interview. Your appearance is something that really has a lot of bearing in a medical office, because you represent the doctor. The person on the other side of a resume is hypothetical, and all the skills in the world aren't enough to overcome personality defects (jerkiness, etc) or extreme personal hygiene problems. So prove to them up front that you are engaging and awesome in person and you have a better shot. If not in that particular office, but of getting suggested to another office!

The office where you interned might allow you to "intern" there again for a month or two, which would give you contact with other offices. Explaining to the people on the other end of the phone that you are "helping Dr G out for a few weeks, and really enjoying it! Do you know any offices that are looking for someone either temporarily or permanent?" Really opens some doors because again, you are a known quantity.

*We got so many resumes and faxes, and they all went straight into the trash. 99% of the time we weren't hiring and the other 1% of the time we used a temp agency to try out a few possible staff members for a day/week. Obviously other offices are different, but the response rate to unsolicited faxes is low for a variety of reasons. Don't take it personally if it doesn't net you anything.
posted by bilabial at 10:00 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

IMO, you'll have more job prospects as a coder, because you can work in a variety of situations: doctor's offices, of course, but also hospitals, clinics and insurance companies, as well as your own business. I don't think it matters right now* if your program is online or not, as long as it is accredited.

*The major coding system is undergoing a big change to a new version, and changes in health care laws require all records to eventually be digital.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:05 AM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

A 360-hour online program in medical administration, medical billing, coding, and medical terminology.

That sounds like it's really targeted more towards back-office work - things like billing and claims follow-up. Unless you're working in an office so small the front desk staff also do billing (which I wouldn't recommend, because you will end up paid no better and seriously overworked), a scheduling/registration desk clerk doesn't need to know much coding.

That said, I wouldn't dismiss back office work out-of-hand. Entry level positions don't really pay any better than front desk, but there's a little more upwards potential since you can land a job there now, do the work for a year or two and then get a certification that would qualify you for something better - although I would focus on coding cert like a CPC or a CCS rather than a generalist online program. Unless you're working outbound patient collections or a customer service call center (which are not entry-level positions anyway), there's a lot less potential for hostile interactions with the public - you might have to deal with your counterparts at insurance companies, buy they're not going to be angry, just lazy and unhelpful.

I would apply for positions at hospitals and health systems rather than just physician's offices - they employ a ton of administrative people, often pay a little bit better (though still not great) than independent physician practices. More and more doctor's offices are being operated by health system physician groups anyway.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:08 AM on August 17, 2012

If you do do a nine month course, find out their graduation rate and placement rate. Speak to dr offices you know of who might know information favorably or unfavorably of a particular school or group. Verify what kind of certificate or certification you'll receive, what body certifies that school and education (and that theirs is current/not under some kind of review).

'round here there are a number of day and night school Medical Assistant/Phlebotomist type schools, some with higher credentialing than others. I know of two that my doctors higher phlebs out of, most of whom have gone on to nursing or to hospital-based jobs. Most of his office staff has been there forever, and started with (and some still feature as office manager) a spouse running the place.

One position I had a shot at was $15 an hour, 35 hours a week, no insurance, asst office manager of a medical office 5 days a week (half day on friday). That was in 2009 - the only reason I turned it down was that I couldn't make the early hours work with my childcare situation at the time. But I also have 5+ years office management exp + training. But I heard about it through an accountant, of all people, which makes sense; they did the books for the office. That same accountant got me a data entry job for $10 an hour a year later in a construction office, IIRC, and when the construction office laid off their internal accountant, the accounting office found her a position with a realty services company for I don't know how much but enough for her to live on/keep her mortgage payments up.

So yes, network among doc office folks, but also accoutants/ings/ers.

Good luck!
posted by tilde at 10:12 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

er - hire phlebs, not higher phlebs.
posted by tilde at 10:13 AM on August 17, 2012

Sorry, my response doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (That's what I get for multitasking.) The medical coding certificate at my community college is the most popular certificate in the entire college, because the job prospects are so good for such a relatively short program. The job prospects are excellent due to the changes in the medical coding systems and because recently enacted laws will soon require all medical records to be digital.

If you're in an area with a lot of hospitals, your job prospects would be better, obviously. Despite the fact that an online program in medical coding probably won't have the stigma associated with it that other online courses of study might, you will probably have to do a lot of legwork on your own if the online program you're considering doesn't have a local presence to go to bat for you. If there are brick-and-mortar coding programs in your area, they will probably be much more proactive about getting their students into internships and then into permanent positions.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:13 AM on August 17, 2012

I'm in medical billling at a large hospital. The online programs for medical billing and coding are not seen is the same light as, say, an online BA. You would be perfectly fine going that route online, and finding an entry level job in the meantime.

I work from home now, but when I was still working at an office we used to get a lot of externs, who were medical billing students at local schools. The externship can be valuable for the experience it can let you put on your resume and creating, but none of the externs I talked to were too happy with the actual job-finding assistance provided by the schools. So if you go the brick & mortar route, expect to get more out of the externship than any kind of tangible help in finding a job.

Here is how I would go about it: I'd try to find an entry level job at a medical office. Small practice, hospital, doesn't really matter, except that once you land a job at a hospital it's easier for you to transfer internally to other positions. Also, previous experience working in a medical office is valuable, even if it's entry level. I'd take an online course - I would suggest coding because it's a booming area and they tend to get paid more than billers. Once you have your certification, keep your entry level job until you find a job in coding.

I had a coworker who took the coding course online and was able to land a coding job even though she didn't have actual experience, so don't let the lack of an externship stop you from going the online route if it's what you need to do.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 10:27 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding what Strangely Stunted Trees says about applying at hospitals and medical centers. Administrative support positions are plentiful, from clinical secretaries working on the floors to working in hospital run clinics. You'll usually get a bit more job stability, better wages, and better benefits by working for a medical center than a private physician's office. Most hospitals post their open positions on their websites, so that's a great place to see what might be available at your local hospitals.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 10:30 AM on August 17, 2012

I work in a medical office and we hire temps from placement programs and then hire them as fulltime employees once their 90 days is up. Check in your area and see if they have a medical specific job placement program. With your experience, they would hire you and then notify and place you when something becomes available. Definitely check into it.

Don't waste your time with a medical assistant program. They cost a lot of money and you will only make $9-$10 an hour at best. You can start off as an office staff member and work you way up in an office and make more money than that in a heartbeat. Trust me, I've done it.
posted by AbsolutelyHonest at 11:14 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are temp agencies that specialize in medical staffing such as Maxim Staffing. You want to find out whether the agency places entry-level folks and look at company reviews on a website like Yelp to find out their record of placing people and if they treat them well.

As for the programs you are thinking of: Never, ever ever go with a program that is not regionally accredited (by the same accrediting body that oversees brick-and-mortar colleges; in my area it is WASC). From the accredited programs, find out about how well their graduates do, not by checking the "placement rate" as they can say someone is "working" if they find a job in fast food, but by asking offices "Would you hire from such and such a program?" and talking to graduates.

I would also investigate whatever job you are training for beyond just reading about it - go for informational interviews - and see if that is really a job you would like to do, just so you don't waste money on a training program for a job it turns out you hate (or is very poorly paid).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:30 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about secretarial/administrative work in a hospital? The good thing about this is that you can then take ancillary classes, in coding for example, while you work a regular shift.

I'm wary of those 9-month courses offered through ads during Jerry Springer and Maury. I'd be more comfortable with a course offered through a Community College.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:56 PM on August 17, 2012

Thanks for the ideas, everyone. I've marked the "best" answers, but really they were all helpful. Responding to some specific points:

something something: You will make a lot more going the medical assistant route.

AbsolutelyHonest: Don't waste your time with a medical assistant program. They cost a lot of money and you will only make $9-$10 an hour at best.

My impression of the financial prospects for medical assistants is closer to AbsolutelyHonest's point of view. I live in a pretty expensive city on the West coast, but starting pay for medical assistants is $10-11 an hour, although I recently heard of getting hired at a hospital for $14. (She was reportedly pretty psyched.) I would be a lot more enthusiastic about medical assisting if the pay were better. I guess it's not such a bad option for a high school grad, especially if they do the program at a community college.

WeekendJen: What about going to school full time prevents you from getting a part time job in some related sector (like a pharmacy or receptionist at a clinic)?

That's a possibility, but I think that working full time and going to school part time would be more compatible with my financial goals. Then again, I'm not sure how much work I'll be able to handle without succumbing to stress.

snorkmaiden: You mention temping; are you working with a temp agency right now?

No, I've been procrastinating about this. But I like the idea of using temp agencies to help me get my foot in the door.

strangely stunted trees: That sounds like it's really targeted more towards back-office work.

According to the website, the online program "is designed to help students prepare for an entry-level job as a medical front desk receptionist, an administrative medical specialist and a medical biller and/or coder." So I guess it could lead to either a front office or a back office position.

Ruthless Bunny: I'm wary of those 9-month courses offered through ads during Jerry Springer and Maury. I'd be more comfortable with a course offered through a Community College.

I totally agree. I've heard of people paying a private career college $15,000 for a medical assisting degree, which is pretty crazy for a job that pays $10 an hour--in Southern California.

The medical assisting program is through a community college; the online program is through the Extension division of a four-year state school. I will check into certifications and post here again when I've made some progress.

Thanks again!
posted by aphorist at 10:04 AM on August 18, 2012

I've heard of people paying a private career college $15,000 for a medical assisting degree, which is pretty crazy for a job that pays $10 an hour--in Southern California.

Based on what I've heard about financial aid and private career colleges, they rely heavily on loans, and selling the education that eventually pays for itself. Though the final reality is a bit different.

When I was growing up, it was all ITT or community college (the private college hadn't gotten off the ground in my area). Now, like I said, I work in a building with one school and down the street from a few others that have taken over strip malls.

It might be that it sounds like a good idea at the time, get a loan, get a job, pay it of in small payment, success! I know I thought about it post-high school pre-professional world (I did a stint of office temping, complete with taking the technical literacy tests) while I was trying to land on my feet. The local colleges and hospitals also had application days where you could go in and take typing tests to qualify to apply for positions.
posted by tilde at 7:33 AM on August 20, 2012

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