Although hiring requirements vary state by state and facility by facility, students pursuing a career as a medical assistant can increase their chances of being hired, as well as their starting salary, through post-secondary education. Online study offers students a flexible and affordable means to achieve the degrees and certifications to which employers in the medical field are most attracted. The following page helps potential students better understand their options when looking for a program to pursue.
It can be a challenge evaluating the potential online medical assistant degree, diploma, and certificate programs across the country. Some schools offer options for focusing on a number of specialties, others are more generalized. How much do the programs cost, what types of schools are out there, and is financial aid available? The search tool below assists prospective medical assistant students find the best match for building their careers, sorting programs by factors including the cost of tuition, the kind of accreditation, online resources and other assets new students need for success.
Medical assistants usually work in doctors’ offices or other healthcare facilities. Although their duties vary depending on the facility in which they work, medical assistants generally perform basic-to-intermediate administrative, clerical and clinical tasks. They work closely with healthcare professionals of all kinds, and may schedule appointments, record patient histories and personal information, help with examinations, prepare blood for the lab, and measure and record vital signs. Although educational requirements vary, professionals with a diploma, a certificate or in some cases an associate degree, may find employers more ready to hire and train them. The following section outlines medical assistant education and training in detail, with a sharp focus on distance learning options.
No universal educational requirements exist for medical assistants. This means that aspiring professionals in the field have myriad training options from which to choose – although they need to be cognizant of state exams and other requirements that may apply. Many medical assistant programs can be achieved in two years or less at a junior college, community college, technical college or vocational school. However, these schools continue to add online programs to help students earn their credential they need in the most flexible academic environment possible.
Also called degree programs, students can take medical assisting diploma coursework at trade and vocational schools online. These programs generally last between one year and 18 months, but can be completed in as little as eight or nine months. Courses focus on a combination of both clinical and administrative skills. Many online programs offer self-paced study, while others have various real-time elements, meaning that students interact with professors or peers via chat or other communication tools. Concepts of medical assisting diploma programs include human anatomy and medical terminology, as well as pharmacology and front office procedures. Students also receive training in first aid, as well as how to prepare patients for exams. Entry requirements typically include a high school diploma or equivalent.
Full-time students can usually earn an online AAS degree in medical assisting in two years or four semesters. Programs consist of an estimated 65 credits, split with 50 credits going toward medical assistant core courses, and 15 credits going toward general studies elective courses. Students who achieve an associate degree can enter the workforce right away. They also become eligible to take the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) examination, as well as the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) examination. Achieving an online associate degree from an accredited institution will propel many students to the top level of potential earnings and ready them for certifications that make them much more marketable for more lucrative positions.
Many medical assistants train to handle a wide range of clerical and administrative responsibilities. Yet some professionals may seek specific training to better serve the medical facility in which they work – or the physician from whom they work. Medical assistants tend to steer their education into one of three categories:
Clinical medical assisting: This educational track focuses mostly on patient care. It includes hands-on work with patients, documenting their vital signs, preparing them for medical exams, performing minor treatments and counseling them on self-administered care or how to take medication once they return home. While they may do some administrative tasks, such as managing the inventory of medical supplies, students pursuing this course of study usually concentrate on the clinical. To become a formally trained clinical medical assistant, students pursue a certificate course or a two-year associate degree. Most online classroom experience is supplemented with real-world “practice” study that prepares them for the rigors of the job.
Administrative medical assisting: Students in an administrative medical assisting program learn how to manage the day-to-day operations of a health care facility. This includes managing patient records, accounting and billing. This line of work requires excellent written and oral skills, telephone communication skills and organizational skills. Students who become administrative medical assistants may serve as liaison between insurance companies and patients, and could be responsible for basic business operations.
Specialized medical assisting: Specialized medical assistants work in a narrowly focused field, and their education reflects that. They must complete an accredited training program and successfully pass a certificate test. Specialists may focus on areas such as family medicine, geriatrics, OB/GYN, internal women’s health, surgery and many other specific fields of interest.
Certifications are not always necessary, but students often find that supplementing education with certification improves their job prospects and their potential salary. There are five accredited organizations that provide certifications for medical assistant students or graduates, all of which may be prepared for and taken online.
Since there is no unified standard of requirements for medical assistant training and education, it is important for students to be meticulous in their own research regarding the criteria of the institutions they are considering. Cost and affordability are, of course, factors to consider, as are the availability of financial aid and scholarships. But other factors may trump price. Look for the following attributes in any school you consider.
Accreditation is the process of reviewing and approvingan institution or program by a government-endorsed agency. This process ensures a standard of academic excellence that is recognized by other educational entities and employers. This attribute is arguably the most important aspect of school selection. The Institute for Credentialing Excellence is the governing body responsible for accrediting all recognized certificates. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) is the largest accreditor in the health/sciences field. The organization maintains a list of accredited medical assisting programs throughout the country, for both traditional and online courses of study. The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) also maintains a list of accredited programs on its website.
Studies show a direct correlation between the level of student support provided by a school and graduation success rates. Students should have access to an advisor who helps them enroll and determine their course structure and schedule, as well as their concentration and areas of study. The advisor should remain with the student through graduation, helping him or her adjust to new levels of academic challenges along the way. Upon graduation, alumni should receive support from their school in help with job placement or in the pursuit of further post-secondary education. Alumni should receive these services for the rest of their lives at no extra cost.
Since distance-learning students are limited to mostly digital interaction, they must be supported by valuable resources that they can access online, including communication technology, remote support and digital libraries. For medical assisting students, it is especially important for their school to coordinate some kind of hands-on work program, because some of the subject matter requires students to physically engage with equipment and tools in order to become competent in the field.
The healthcare industry is in constant flux, and technology, procedures and tools are always evolving. The student must choose a school that displays a demonstrated connection to actual, real-world facilities. This could be achieved through faculty work in the field or partnerships with healthcare entities. Only then can students ensure that the skills they are learning will be the most up-to-date, the most applicable and the most marketable.