Choosing a medical assistant degree is a very personal process.
Should you take the quickest and most direct route to the job market with a certificate or diploma, or take your time in an associate's degree program? Neither timeframe for medical assistant training is inherently better than the other, so the question becomes, which is right for you?
What to Expect
Your medical assistant training program should prepare you for a variety of tasks in a hospital, clinic or private medical practice environment. Your job duties will range from taking vital signs to scheduling patient appointments, so you'll need medical assistant training that covers a spectrum of administrative tasks as well as patient care procedures.
You'll also get plenty of real-world practice during your externship in a hospital or doctor's office.
Medical Assistant Training
The most versatile health professional in any healthcare setting, a medical assistant juggles both clinical and administrative assignments. What are the steps to becoming a medical assistant?
- Ask Yourself: Is This Career Right for Me?
Medical assistants often initiate medical appointments by escorting patients to examination rooms, taking vital signs and preparing the room for the next member of the medical team. They also handle a range of office tasks, from coding medical records to scheduling office visits.
As a medical assistant, you'll need strong interpersonal skills as you work with patients in pain and distress. You'll also work closely with other medical professionals, often facing a great deal of pressure. Other traits that will serve you well: analytical skills (crucial for interpreting medical charts and diagnoses) and a penchant for detailed work.
- Enroll in a Medical Assistant Training Program
Entry to the profession generally requires a diploma or certificate. Most states don't have formal educational requirements, but employers will prefer to see medical assistant training on your résumé. You can attend a medical assistant training program in a local college, career college, or in an online program. The training will include laboratory and/or clinical sessions that offer hands-on practice in drawing blood, taking vital statistics and assisting with routine medical procedures.
- Make the Most of Medical Assistant Training
Has it been a while since you've been in school? Be sure to attend the orientation session for your program—either online or in-person—and set yourself up for success from the start. Organize these essentials before the first day of class:
- Calendar – Record due dates for all assignments, and other important milestones such as exams. Block out study time in your weekly schedule.
- Notebook or laptop/tablet – Set up files (or tabs) for each class in your program. You won't waste time scrounging around for your notes when you need to refer to them.
- Parking pass – If you're attending an on-campus program, plan your commute and parking strategy in advance to avoid last-minute delays.
- Optional: Become Certified as a Medical Assistant
To stand out to employers, take the time to gain certification in medical assisting. In order to qualify for the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) designation, you'll need to attend a program that's been accredited by an outside agency and pass a national exam administered by the American Association of Medical Assistants.
Some duties are the exclusive domain of certified medical assistants. For instance: In 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ruled that only "credentialed medical assistants" may enter medication, laboratory and diagnostic imaging orders into the computerized system for the Medicare and Medicaid Electronic Health Record Incentive Program.
Online Medical Assistant Programs
Ideal for adults juggling family and work obligations, online medical assisting programs free you from the hassle of commuting to campus. You’ll log in to listen to lectures (either at your convenience, or at set times), stream videos, download lectures and slideshows, and more. You'll also engage with the instructor and other students via an online forum.
As an online student, you can do your homework at the times that work best for you— early in the morning while the house is asleep, waiting for the kids' soccer practice to end, or in the evenings when they've gone to bed.
Most online programs partner with local healthcare facilities. That's where you'll complete your clinical requirements, getting hands-on practice in skills such as measuring blood pressure, performing basic lab tasks and using a microscope. You may even get to examine X-rays. All the while, you'll be learning the ropes of a medical office, record keeping to insurance processing.
Your degree or certificate won’t list the fact that it was earned online. Potential employers for this in-demand skill are mostly concerned about your mastery of the material—not the delivery method.
But before you enroll in any medical assisting program, make sure it’s accredited. This third-party stamp of approval signals that the course provider meets important criteria for quality and rigor.
Also: Federal aid is only available to students enrolled in accredited schools.
Medical Assistant Courses
Online programs share the same aim as their traditional brick and mortar counterparts: to ready you to take on vital clinical and administrative tasks in a hospital, clinic or other healthcare setting.
Medical assistant training courses generally include:
- Patient Care–A medical assistant is often the first person a patient sees in a clinical setting. This course covers the basics of delivering care: recording vital signs, charting, recordkeeping, and a basic physical exam.
- Intercultural Communications–Get a handle on basic psychology as it relates to healthcare, and recognize the various cultural perspectives on illness, stress and caregiving.
- Clinical and Diagnostic Procedures–Learn how to administer an electrocardiogram, from positioning the patient to placing the leads that measure heart rate. You'll study the cardiac cycle and learn how to recognize and interpret emergency conditions.
- Anatomy & Physiology–Learn the ins and outs of the human body as you gain fluency in the language of anatomy. This course also covers diseases and related tests for the body systems you'll learn to name.
- Front Office 101–From medical scheduling to records maintenance to computer basics, explore the systems and procedures that keep an office humming.
- Sterile Techniques–After successfully completing this course, you'll be equipped to assist a physician with a minor surgery. Learn about sterile principles and procedure, surgical instruments and patient preparation and follow-up
- Intro to Medical Billing and Insurance Coding–Learn to navigate medical insurance coding to successfully decipher and submit claims. The course should provide an overview of all types of medical insurance, from Health Management Organizations to Medicare and Medicaid.
- Medical Law and Ethics–Get familiar with legal terms and concepts in a healthcare setting. The coursework will cover confidentiality, risk management, medical records, documentation and more.
- Medication Administration–How do you calculate medication dosages and deliver them correctly to a patient? This course covers all factors, including drug labels, the six rights of drug administration, and hands-on practice in giving oral meds, injections and more.
- Pharmacology–Explore the principles of this discipline, including the origin, properties, uses and effects of drugs. You'll also learn about regulations and legal classifications, plus the proper storage and handling of medications.
- Disease and Pathology for Medical Assistants–Review terminology and anatomical structures, and learn about the most common diseases and disorders of various body systems.
- Phlebotomy for Medical Assistants–Learn the theory and practice of blood collection, including the anatomy and physiology of the cardiovascular system. You'll also practice patient interaction, finding a proper site, and the selection of various methods of blood collection.
Types of Medical Assistant Programs
Certificate or Diploma Program
Length of program: Nine months to a year to complete
Where the programs are offered: Career colleges and community colleges
What the program offers: A certificate or diploma in medical assisting will give you the essential skills you need to enter the workforce with confidence. Your studies will be tailored specifically for a medical assistant career and won't take up your time with liberal arts classes that don't directly apply to your career goals.
Expect to study anatomy and physiology, clinical procedures, medical terminology, medical law and office administration. At the end of your studies, you should be ready to assist in a medical setting by taking vital signs, administering injections, assisting in minor surgeries, recording EKGs and maintaining patient charts.
If the diploma or certificate program is accredited, you may qualify to take the Certified Medical Assistant exam.
Associate's Degree in Medical Assisting
Length of program: Associate-level medical assistant degree programs last two years
Where the programs are offered: Career colleges and community colleges
What the program offers: You'll learn the basic skills essential to a medical assistant role, similar to the certificate program described above. Your studies will also include general education curriculum that will improve your overall knowledge and marketability with prospective employers. Here's an example of course work from Lake Washington Institute of Technology's 90-credit Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in medical assisting:
- Human Biology with Lab–This course surveys human anatomy and physiology, equipping you to identify and name structures, organs systems, and the interrelationships between them. You will research human pathologies and diseases.
- Phlebotomy and Blood borne Pathogens–Study the circulatory system and blood collection, including laboratory safety procedures and infection control. You'll practice drawing blood, the proper handling of specimens and patient education regarding AIDS.
- Medical Computer Applications–Navigate computerized medical landscape, from scheduling and managing appointments to tracking insurance, lab orders and prescriptions. The course also covers essential computer hygiene and quality assurance.
- Written Communication–Practice writing clear, well-organized prose as you hone your critical thinking skills.
- Quantitative Reasoning–Clearly communicate your ideas through the language of numbers. Whether you choose a course in algebra, statistics or calculus, you'll learn to gather, organize and interpret data.
- Social Science–Choose from courses in business, criminal justice, economics, psychology, sociology and civic engagement. Learn the discipline of analyzing social issues with a focus on cultural diversity.
- Humanities–Classes in the humanities run the gamut from printmaking to public speaking. You'll focus your creative inquiries through the lens of visual art, literature, or Spanish language, learning historical perspectives and modern methods in the process.
An associate's degree in medical assisting will provide a good foundation for your future educational pursuits. The credits you earn in your associate's program will count toward earning a bachelor's or master's degree if you decide that medical assisting isn't the ultimate destination on your career path.
If the school you attend is accredited, you may qualify to sit for the Certified Medical Assistant exam.
Medical Assistant School Accreditation
Regardless of where you complete your medical assistant training, make sure your school is accredited by one of the following accrediting bodies if you want medical assistant certification:
- Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
Only graduates of accredited programs may sit for the national Certified Medical Assistant exam.
Take the Next Step
Now that you've got the vital statistics on the path to become a medical assistant, it's time to take action. Find the program that's just right for you.