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Medical Assisting Training: Degrees, Program Options & Certification

A medical assistant degree can help you take the next step in your career path.

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Medical Assisting Programs and You

Choosing the right medical assistant course can be 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 time frame 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.

Types of Medical Assistant Programs

Certificate or Diploma Programs

Don’t have two years to devote to school? Already work in the healthcare field and want to expand your skill set? A certificate program could be the right path for you. Unlike an associate’s degree, your coursework will not include general education courses. The curriculum focuses solely on medical assistant tasks and responsibilities. This is also why the program is shorter in length, usually nine to 12 months.

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 Programs

You can earn your medical assistant associate degree from a community college or a four-year college. Here’s a sample list of what you’ll learn during your 18-to-24 month program:

Length of program: Associate-level medical assistant degree programs last two years

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.

In addition to the healthcare classes, associate’s programs will include general education courses which will help strengthen your writing and math skills. They also provide you with a more well-rounded perspective.

Depending on the degree program you choose, you may also be required to complete and externship. This should apply even if you decide to study through an online degree program. This is an opportunity to put what you learned in the classroom to work. Typically, you’ll be set up with a local medical facility where you’ll gain hands-on experience.

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 Certification

One way to boost your salary potential and increase your job prospects is with professional certification. While you don’t need to be certified to work as a medical assistant, many employers look for this additional credential from candidates.

The Importance of Choosing an Accredited Program

If you’re researching schools and programs, there are many things to consider.

You may want to look at the school’s proximity to your home and whether you can schedule the courses you’ll need. You will also want to ensure that the curriculum covers exactly what will fit your criteria for what it means to be the best medical assistant possible. One easy way to check the overall educational quality of a program is to verify that your school is professionally or regionally accredited.

Here’s why you should always attend an accredited medical assistant school.

If you are wondering what accreditation really is, a good working definition is accreditation is a sign that an institution ascribes to, believes in, and has met an external set of basic criteria for its programs. An accredited school will have passed a thorough inspection of its educational and administrative policies and practices, gauged by peers actually in the profession. An accredited school is credentialed as being an institution that graduates students who are fully prepared to succeed in their area of specialty.

Why it Matters

Accreditation should be one of your top qualifying criteria when researching programs. You want the very best education and when a program can boast accreditation from either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), you can be assured your school can deliver the most current curriculum.

Beyond the assurance that your school offers the high quality medical assistant education that you’ll need to prepare for a career in this field, you’ll also find that accreditation carries additional benefits:

  • Not only will these accrediting agencies assure that the how’s and what’s of learning are in place, but that you will form an educational bedrock for future growth.
  • If you receive a medical assistant certificate from school accredited by either the CAAHEP or ABHES, you will be able to later build on that certificate to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and be assured your credits will transfer.
  • With an accredited school credential on your resume, you can sit for the national certification exam and become a Certified Medical Assistant.

One critical key benefit to attending an accredited program is that they offer access to federal financial aid to help you pay for school and supplies. It is important to have a supplemental means with which to pay for your education. Keep in mind that there are also plenty of scholarships available from a wide range of foundations and organizations in your local area and nationally.

Programs that have regional accreditation may also be satisfactory for many students, and there are six locations that govern specific areas of the United States. When a program has regional accreditation, you can still build on the completed schooling, in that you can transfer your credits to other educational institutions and earn a higher degree.

Make sure to do a comparison of the programs to ensure that you will learn what you need in order to succeed in your medical assisting career.

Find the Best Curriculum

Some areas of a program’s curriculum that accrediting agencies look for in a medical assistant program include the following studies:

Subjects You’ll Study

  • Lab techniques
  • Diagnostics
  • Clinical procedures
  • Office best practices
  • Insurance processing and coding
  • Medical terminology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Pathology
  • Accounting
  • Communications

On top of this, make sure that your accredited program includes a practicum that will provide real world experience. Find out how closely your educational program works with your clinical experience and make sure they are grooming you for success on the CMA exam. Ask how your practicum is structured and what your options are. For example, upon completion will you be prepared to work in your desired specialty or healthcare facility, such as a doctor’s office or a specialized department in a hospital.

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