Health Care Team Members

There are many members of a general health care team. Medical assistants should familiarize themselves with each of these specialties so they can communicate with others in an informed and effective manner.


Physicians, or medical doctors (MDs), are qualified to diagnose and treat patients for illness and disease, prescribe medication, and perform surgery. Their education usually involves 4 years of “premed” undergraduate coursework, 4 years of medical school, and then 3 to 8 years of an internship or residency, commonly in a specialty area. Many physicians also earn board certification in their chosen specialty by passing a certification examination. Physicians must have a license in the state in which they practice medicine and must participate in continuing education for license renewal. Because medical assistants may assist with patient referrals to other physicians, they should become familiar with the many areas in which physicians specialize. Furthermore, such knowledge may be useful to medical assistants as they decide in which areas they are most interested in working.

Other Practitioners

There are some health care practitioners whose education and specialty differs from that of medical physicians. These practitioners include chiropractors, dentists, optometrists, and, in some cases, naturopathic physicians. Although these practitioners are specialists in their own right, their practice differs from that of traditional medical doctors and they may have limited authority to prescribe medications and treatments.


Nurses are licensed professionals who are closely involved in patient care. Their practice is dictated by the state board of nursing in each state and is legally independent of physicians. However, nurses commonly work closely with physicians in the provision of patient care. Their role and duties include, but are not limited to, patient assessment, nursing care plan design, implementation of physician orders, communication of data about patient status with physicians as well as other members of the health care team, and education of patients and family members. Nursing titles and legal designations vary depending on the nurse’s education and legal credential earned. Nurses practice in a wide variety of areas in public, private, acute, long-term, and home care settings.

Physician Assistants

The role of the physician assistant (PA) was created by physicians to provide them with assistance in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of patients. Historically, the first PAs were selected for their experience as medics in the military, nurses, or some other health care field. Further training was then provided by physicians in certificate programs. Currently, there are more than 130 PA programs in the United States. Some programs provide a 2-year Associate's degree; however, most are now 4-year Bachelor of Science degree programs. In addition, Master's degree programs are now available in some states. After completing their education, PAs must pass a certification examination,
which earns them the right to list the PAC (physician assistant, certified) credential after their name. PAs can work in more than 60 specialty areas. Their specific duties are determined by state law and their supervising physician. They have prescriptive authority based on this relationship. Most PAs are directly involved in patient assessment, diagnosis, and treatment in the ambulatory care setting, and some PAs are trained to assist physicians in specialty settings such as surgery.

Medical Technologists

Medical technologists (MTs) earn a Bachelor of Science degree. They are credentialed with a license or certificate to perform diagnostic testing on blood and body fluids to aid in the diagnosis of diseases and disorders. Those who pass the certification examination earn the right to list the ASCP (American Society for Clinical Pathology) credential after their name. Medical technologists work in laboratories of clinics, hospitals, or universities performing a full range of simple and complex laboratory tests. They work with and may supervise medical laboratory technicians. In the course of their work, they operate electronic equipment, computers, and precision instruments in five laboratory areas:
1) blood banking
2) chemistry
3) hematology
4) immunology
5) microbiology


All therapists work with clients to help them regain or achieve an optimal level of function. However, their education, training, and roles vary greatly. Some of the most common types of therapists found in the health care setting are physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, and respiratory therapist.

Physical Therapist

A physical therapist (PT) earns a Master of Science degree and may earn a doctorate as well. The PT is a licensed professional and must graduate from an accredited program. Some states require continuing education for license renewal. A PT designs individual therapy programs for clients of all ages in order to restore strength, mobility, and function; decrease pain; and promote overall fitness and health. The overall goal of care is to increase the patient’s ability to function at work and at home. Physical therapy treatment methods include exercise, stretching, heat or cold application, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and massage. PTs teach patients to use such assistive devices as wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, and prosthetics. They may specialize in a variety of areas, including pediatrics, geriatrics, sports medicine, orthopedics, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, and aquatic therapy. They supervise and delegate tasks to physical therapy assistants (PTAs), who are also valuable members of the therapy team.

Occupational Therapist

An occupational therapist (OT) is a licensed professional who may earn the OTR (registered) credential upon passing a certification examination. A Master’s degree is required for entry into practice as an OT. OTs work with patients with a variety of disabilities from physical or natural causes. An OT designs an individual therapy program for each patient that helps him or her achieve an optimal level of function in the performance of his or her ADLs, such as bathing, dressing, and eating. OTs may also assist patients in regaining optimal function in their occupational setting. Such a program may include designing or prescribing special equipment to help a patient function at home or at work or developing computer-aided adaptive equipment and teaching a patient to use it. OTs may specialize in specific patient populations, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, or mentally handicapped patients.

Respiratory Therapist

A respiratory therapist (RT) treats patients with a variety of pulmonary disorders and works with patients of all ages. RTs also work in a variety of settings, including acute care, ambulatory care, home care, and private businesses. RT duties include helping patients experiencing breathing problems in emergency situations, setting up ventilators, and assisting in the care of patients on life support. RTs may assist physicians with diagnosis by performing pulmonary function tests (PFTs), provide oxygen therapy via various delivery devices, administer such breathing treatments as nebulizers and chest percussion therapy (CPT), teach patients to use respiratory equipment, and deliver and set up oxygen equipment in patients’ homes and teach them to use it. Their goal is to help clients achieve and maintain an optimal level of respiratory function. Educational preparation for respiratory therapists is an Associate’s degree.

Speech Therapist

A speech therapist (ST) diagnoses and treats patients with speech, voice, or language disorders. STs develop and implement individualized therapy programs based on input from and consultation with other professionals, such as physicians, nurses, and social workers. STs are uniquely qualified to evaluate patients experiencing swallowing difficulties and recommend appropriate dietary and safety modifications accordingly. Requirements to practice speech therapy include a Master’s degree in speech pathology plus 375 hours of supervised clinical practice, passing a national examination, and 9 months of postgraduate experience.

Registered Dietitian

A registered dietitian (RD) is an expert in the area of food and nutrition. An RD acts as a consultant in hospitals, long-term care facilities, HMOs, community and public health organizations, and medical centers. RDs also work in sports nutrition, food- and nutrition-related businesses, and research.They may specialize in working with pediatric, renal, and diabetic patients. A Bachelor’s degree is required for entry to practice. However, many RDs earn their Master’s or Doctorate degrees as well. After graduation, RDs must complete a supervised practice program and pass a national examination. Continuing education is required to maintain registration.

Pre-hospital Care Specialists

Some health care providers are educated and trained to provide emergency care and transport for those who experience injury or illness. Such individuals generally are employed by fire departments or ambulance companies. Examples of prehospital care specialists are emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

Emergency Medical Technicians

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are trained members of the emergency management services (EMS) team and assist paramedics in the stabilization and transportation of patients to the hospital. They are usually dispatched to the scene of an emergency by the 911 operator and may work with police or fire department personnel.


Paramedics are trained to provide emergency interventions for ill or injured patients with the goal of stabilizing them enough for transport to the hospital. They are usually dispatched to the scene of an emergency by the 911 operator and work with and supervise EMTs and, possibly, police or fire department personnel. They must know how to evaluate the scene to identify potential hazards; provide emergency, lifesaving interventions such as CPR; control bleeding; and perform other basic and advanced lifesaving skills. Paramedic programs vary in length by state and whether they are full-time or part-time. Training includes advanced cardiac life support (ACLS), pediatric advanced life support (PALS), and other emergency care courses.


A variety of technicians work in the hospital and clinic settings to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of illness or injury. Some of these technicians include phlebotomists, radiologic technicians, and medical laboratory technicians.


Phlebotomists are trained to draw blood from patients for laboratory testing or from blood donors for blood banks. They spend time working directly with patients, taking blood, and monitoring the patient’s response. They also assist the laboratory technologists by helping prepare and process the tests. Other tasks may include updating records, preparing stains and reagents, and cleaning and sterilizing equipment. Phlebotomists work in the laboratories of hospitals clinics, and blood banks. They may be trained on the job or may complete an accredited 1-semester or 1-year program,
earning a diploma or certificate.

Radiologic Technicians

Radiologic technicians help physicians diagnose a patient’s disorder by creating images of internal organs, tissues, and bones. Common procedures include x-rays, which show bones, and fluoroscopies and sonograms, which show soft tissues by using sound, magnetic, and radio waves. Radiologic technicians analyze the images and consult with physicians about their significance. They take special precautions to protect themselves and patients from unnecessary radiation exposure. Training usually consists of an Associate’s degree in a professional technical program or a Bachelor’s degree. People with experience in another health care field may be able to complete a 1-year certification program.

Medical Laboratory Technicians

Medical laboratory technicians (MLTs) assist in the diagnosis and treatment of patients by performing tests on blood, body fluids, or tissue specimens using microscopes, computers, and complex laboratory equipment. They work under the supervision of a medical laboratory technologist (MT), pathologist, or other professional. They may specialize in one of five different areas, including chemistry, blood banking, hematology, immunology, and microbiology. Other MLT duties include equipment and records maintenance and results reporting. Most MLTs work in
laboratories of hospitals, public health organizations, universities, pharmaceutical companies, biomedical companies, or the armed forces. MLTs must complete an Associate’s degree program and pass a national certification examination.

Administrative Specialists

Administrative specialists help with such administrative duties as coding, transcription, data entry, and medical records. Two types of administrative specialists are medical coding specialist and medical transcriptionist.

Medical Coding Specialist

A medical coding specialist reads and analyzes documentation of physicians and other health care providers to gather data about diseases, injuries, and procedures and translates it into diagnostic and procedural codes.Accuracy in assigning correct codes is critically important for compliance with federal regulations and insurance reimbursement.The medical facility may also use this data for planning and marketing as well as the preparation of management reports. Medical coding specialists work in hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, home health agencies, dental offices, insurance companies, and government agencies. Training may be available on-the-job or through continuing education; however, an Associate’s degree is recommended. To become a certified medical coder, an individual must pass examinations offered by the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) and the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC).

Medical Transcriptionist

Medical transcriptionists work in partnership with health care providers to document patient care. They are health care professionals with expertise in medical language who translate a physician’s dictation of a patient’s medical history, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis into written form.Transcriptionists must use common sense and sound judgment, knowing when to seek clarification and verify information in order to ensure the accuracy of the medical record, which is considered a legal document. Certification may be earned by passing an examination and is maintained through continuing education. Medical transcriptionists work in physician’s offices, hospitals, clinics, laboratories, insurance companies, government facilities, legal offices, and research centers. Some medical transcriptionists also work out of their homes as independent contractors.