One way in which medical assistants contribute to better healthcare is by performing diagnostic tests. Convenient, it saves patients a trip to the hospital and conserves valuable resources. If you’re passionate about science and have an aptitude for technology, you’ll appreciate the excitement that doing laboratory tests provides. But which diagnostics can a medical assistant perform, and does it include EKGs?
What Tests Does a Medical Assistant Perform?
Which diagnostics you’ll do regularly as a medical assistant depends on the hospital, clinic or practice you work for. But you’ll be trained to do these tests:
Medical assistants are not only trained to collect urine specimens, but they’re also taught how to perform urinalysis, a test that examines the contents of urine for abnormalities indicating an infection or other medical condition. From reading test strips to examining samples under the microscope, medical assistants learn how to identify the components in urine that could spell trouble from white blood cells and crystals to red blood cells and casts.
Urine-based pregnancy tests are done both to detect pregnancy and to rule it out before doing x-rays. In a women’s health practice, you may perform these daily.
Nasopharyngeal and Throat Swabs
A new role evolved for medical assistants during the pandemic, doing nasopharyngeal swabs. Essential for Covid-19 testing, it expands on the throat swabs done to diagnose strep throat infections.
Occult Blood Testing
The presence of occult blood in feces, blood you can’t see, suggests a wide range of medical conditions from gastrointestinal ulcers to colon cancer. The screening test is simple, place feces on specially treated paper, add chemical regents and observe for color changes. Medical assistants perform this test often as part of annual physicals for older adults.
Tuberculosis remains a public health threat, so testing is part of pre-employment physicals for many workers. Performed by medical assistants and read by nurses, the Mantoux test is done by injecting tuberculin toxin between the two most superficial layers of skin.
Phlebotomy, the process of drawing blood from a vein, is necessary to collect samples for testing. Medical assistants are trained to draw and process specimens, testing them in-house when possible or shipping them to a laboratory.
Among the most important tests medical assistants do are EKGs. There are several types that medical assistants perform or assist with. Let’s take a closer look at what an EKG is and the medical assistant’s role.
What Is an EKG?
An EKG, or ECG, is an electrocardiogram. Developed at the turn of the 20th century by the Dutch physician and medical researcher, Willem Einthoven, it’s a simple test that maps electrical activity in the heart through leads applied to the body’s surface. Heartbeats are recorded as waves, each corresponding to a different phase of the cardiac cycle:
P Wave – starts when the sinoatrial node, the heart’s pacemaker, fires an electrical impulse.
Q Wave – measures the impulse as it travels through the septum, the bridge between the right and left sides of the heart muscle.
R Wave – the tallest peak on a normal EKG, reflecting the contraction of the left ventricle.
S Wave – occurs as the lower chambers of the heart muscle depolarize, and the right ventricle contracts, forcing blood through the lungs.
T Wave – marks the end of the cardiac cycle as the ventricles relax.
There are two types of EKGs that medical assistants perform. The first is a standard 12-lead EKG that gives doctors a two-dimensional view of heart function. Done with the patient at rest, it takes about ten minutes to complete in an office or inpatient setting.
The second is portable Holter monitoring for patients who experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, or palpitations, only occasionally or during activity. Patients are fitted with discrete devices as small as a deck of cards. Worn for up to two weeks, Holter monitors can catch abnormalities that regular EKGs miss.
What Do EKGs Tell Doctors?
An electrocardiogram is just one of several diagnostic tests used to assess cardiac function and diagnose disorders, such as:
Heart dysrhythmias â€” abnormalities in the heart rate and rhythm
Ischemia â€” chest pain resulting from decreased blood supply to the heart muscle
Electrolyte imbalances â€” high or low levels of mineral ions that regulate heart function
Cardiomyopathy â€” thickening of heart chamber walls secondary to heart failure or high blood pressure
Heart attacks â€” the death of heart muscle due to coronary artery blockages
Early diagnosis of these heart disorders improves the odds of successful treatment. A quick, painless, and inexpensive test, the EKG is among the fastest ways to detect a heart attack.
What Are the Steps to Perform an EKG?
Medical assistants are responsible for the EKG process from start to finish. The steps include:
Before the first test of the day, medical assistants do quality control checks on the EKG machine to ensure that it’s working properly. They restock the necessary supplies, disinfect shared spaces, and turn off unnecessary electrical devices, such as cell phones, fans and air conditioners, which could interfere with the tracing.
Medical assistants screen patients for physical limitations before testing begins. People with heart failure, for example, can’t lie down without having shortness of breath, so accommodations must be made. The goal is for the patient to be comfortable enough to remain still, movement causes artifacts in the tracing.
Getting the best EKG results requires patient cooperation, so medical assistants explain the process in detail before the test begins to alleviate stress.
Helping patients prepare physically for an EKG is straightforward, but each step is critical for the best results.
As a medical assistant, you will:
- Safeguard patient privacy
- Remind patients to remove metal jewelry and body piercings that may interfere with the test
- Offer loose-fitting garments to make electrode placement more comfortable
- Help position the patient on the exam table
- Shave the hair and cleanse the skin where the electrodes will be applied
Performing the EKG
To perform the EKG, the medical assistant sticks the electrode pads firmly on the patient’s body, avoiding bony prominences and broken skin. Once placed, the color-coded leads that transmit the electric impulses are attached and the electrocardiograph is turned on.
The patient is then asked to take a deep breath and hold it while remaining as still as possible until the tracing is complete, it takes less than 30 seconds. Preliminary results are recorded in the patient’s chart for the doctor to review. Any unexpected symptoms or glaring abnormalities are reported before the patient leaves.
After the test, the medical assistant removes the electrodes and helps physically impaired patients peel off the pads. Patients are reminded when to expect results and who they can call with inquiries. The exam room is then restocked and sanitized for the next patient.
How Often Does a Medical Assistant Do EKGs?
In a busy cardiology office, a medical assistant could do dozens of EKGs per day, some are hired exclusively for that role. In a hospital, clinic, or general practitioner’s office, you may do several per week to a few per day.
EKG Skills for Medical Assistants
Performing EKGs is a technically straightforward task, but it also requires sound clinical judgment and people skills. Among the most essential are:
Medical assistants work with patients from all walks of life, many of whom are anxious about diagnostic tests. The more you can put them at ease, the more likely they’ll be physically relaxed, so the EKG will be more accurate.
Patient satisfaction is also important, so medical assistants should consider the procedure from the patient’s point of view, improving their comfort in whatever way possible.
Attention to Detail
Performing an EKG is simple, but there’s little room for error. Poor technique can skew the results, resulting in care delays. Attention to detail is crucial.
Good Communication Skills
Medical assistants coordinate with physicians, colleagues, and patients during the EKG process. From explaining the process to patients to notifying the doctor of unusual findings, good communication skills keep things running safely and smoothly.
Doing EKGs requires bending, twisting, and reaching to place electrodes and assist patients with physical challenges. Being in good physical condition makes the job easier.
Critical Thinking Skills
Critical thinking is the ability to analyze facts and make sound decisions. It’s a skill medical assistants will use every day as they troubleshoot issues pertaining to EKGs from how to calm a frightened child to when to notify the doctor of abnormal findings. Critical thinking is a must for prioritizing workflow and managing emergencies.
A Commitment to Lifelong Learning
Healthcare evolves continually, and so must your skills as an EKG technician. New techniques and insights into EKG interpretation are always on the horizon. As a medical assistant, you’ll need to embrace lifelong continuing education.
How to Become a Medical Assistant
If doing EKGs sounds intriguing, one of the quickest ways to get training is to enroll in a vocational school medical assisting program. You’ll graduate in less than a year with EKG and other valuable skills while enjoying benefits, such as financial aid, small class sizes and job placement services. A diploma is your key to a secure future in a growing industry.
Medical assistants have broad-ranging responsibilities, but few are as exciting or meaningful as doing EKGs. Working side-by-side with doctors, you’ll peer into the human body using the latest in technology and bring better health to your community, one patient at a time.
Want to Learn More?
Gwinnett Colleges & Institute offers medical assisting courses to gain essential skills and training at multiple campuses from Lilburn, Sandy Springs and Atlanta/Marietta to Orlando, FL and Raleigh, NC. The core curriculum at these campuses focuses on the medical assisting skills and training you will need to seek entry-level employment in physicians’ offices, clinics, hospitals, and other medical settings needing the services of associates trained in both front and back office medical assisting skills. These medical assisting courses will be the first step in starting a rewarding career.
Contact us to learn more about how you can become a medical assistant today.