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Education Programs to Become a Medical Assistant 

You can choose between a certificate or a two-year associate degree to work as a medical assistant.

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Home » Medical Assisting » Education

In order to work in medical assisting, you’ll generally need one to two years of education. And though a certificate from a medical assistant program isn’t always required, most employers will expect their employees to have attended such a program and also be certified.

Choose a Program

Most medical assistant programs consist of a balance of administrative and clinical education.  There are many programs and schools to choose from, depending on finances and how quickly you want to finish school.

Certificate programs usually take a year, but there are programs that are as short as a few months. Another route to a career in medical assisting is earning an associate degree.

This chart compares the two pathways.

Certificate or DiplomaAssociate Degree
Class OfferingsPhysiology and pathology, pharmacology, lab techniques and procedures, first-aid, office practices, medication administrationHuman anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, lab techniques, administrative procedures, pharmacology, medication administration
Time to CompleteTypically nine months to a yearTypically two years of full-time study
Program ComparisonGenerally offered at vocational schools, community colleges, or specialty schools. Students usually have a shorter period of clinical training than students pursuing an associate degree.Typically offered at community colleges and include substantial clinical and administrative education and training.

Don’t Let Math Fears Stop You

Math anxiety affects students of all ages and can be one reason that people are hesitant to enroll in a health professions program like medical assisting.

While there is some math in medical assistant education, it’s fairly basic. All you’ll need to have is an understanding of math fundamentals, basic algebra, and how to solve simple functions and equations.

Land an Internship or Externship

While most medical assistant programs educate and train students in clinical and administrative skills, some focus more on one side of the profession. Regardless of your program, you’ll get hands-on clinical experience in a healthcare setting.

Clinical experience is crucial because it prepares you to work with patients and colleagues, the core role of a medical assistant. To gain your clinical experience, you may have an internship or an externship.

An internship is work experience offered by an organization for a set period of time. Internships can last for a quarter or a semester or be completed over the summer.

In general, a medical assistant degree or certificate program will help students land a clinical training stint.

An externship is generally the same as an internship but for a shorter period of time. Some are just for a day, while others can be as long as several weeks or a couple of months.

Both types of hands-on training will give you the clinical experience you need for a career as a medical assistant. You can expect to learn:

  • Laboratory procedures, such as performing vital checks or taking urine tests
  • Steps to taking a patient’s medical history
  • Medical risk management/HIPAA laws and medical ethics
  • Insurance, billing, and other administrative duties
  • Collaboration with colleagues in a specific setting

In general, a medical assistant program will help students land a clinical training stint.

Danielle Sadighi, founder of the American Medical Certification Association (AMCA), says schools have an incentive to help students get an internship. “Schools look to align with the hospitals so that they can feed (program graduates) into doctors’ offices and hospitals,” she says.

Earn a Certification 

There are no licenses for medical assistants. Certification is optional, but most medical assistants do earn a credential for two reasons: A credential demonstrates your knowledge and expertise, and most employers expect medical assistants to have one.

There are seven basic certifications to choose from. The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) and the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) are the most common, but the one you pick could depend on where you hope to work. That’s because some medical institutions prefer a particular certification. Many schools also prepare students for a specific certification, so you’ll want to make sure that your school and medical community preferences sync up.

One way to determine which credential might be best for you is to look at job openings in your area to see if a particular certification is repeatedly requested.

After getting some experience, you might decide to specialize and earn a credential in a specific field of medicine.

Here’s a sample of some of the specialties available to medical assistants:

  • Podiatric Medical Assistant Certification (PMAC)
  • Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA)
  • Chiropractic Assistant Certification (CCCA)
  • Specialty Certified Medical Assistant in Geriatrics (SCMA-G)

One way to determine which credential might be best for you is to look at job openings in your area to see if a particular certification is popular.

Accreditation

When choosing a medical assisting program, make sure the school and program are both accredited. Schools and programs that are accredited have met the education standards deemed necessary to prepare a person for their career.

There are more reasons to attend an accredited school and program:

  • You may have trouble earning a credential if your school and program aren’t accredited.
  • Many employers look for accreditation on a job candidate’s resume.
  • Generally, you need to attend an accredited school and program to qualify for financial aid.

The accreditation agencies for medical assisting are:

  • Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)

What to Look for In a School

There are many medical assisting programs to choose from, so what should you look for to make sure you choose the best program for you?

Type of Program

First, decide what kind of program you want to attend—certificate, diploma, or associate degree. Then look at schools. You’ll find medical assisting programs at:

  • Career tech schools, previously known as “vocational schools”
  • Community colleges
  • Private specialty schools

Flexibility and Convenience

Overall, medical assisting programs offer a lot of flexibility and convenience and can be ideal for students who have other responsibilities outside of school. This flexibility applies to classroom and online programs and can include:

  • Accelerated formats that let you work at your pace
  • Open enrollment that isn’t tied to a semester or quarter system and frequent start dates
  • Self-paced courses
  • Evening and weekend classes

Job Placement/Career Counseling

Find out if the schools you are interested in offer job placement or help finding a job. Some schools have relationships with local hospitals, clinics, and physician’s practices.

You can also use your medical assistant program to make connections and network so you’ll have contacts when you graduate.

Managing School and a Busy Life

Going to school might seem daunting if you plan to continue working or you have family responsibilities. Or you might feel uncertain if you’re switching careers or returning to school after an extended absence.

But school doesn’t need to be daunting. With some preparation, you can make room for education in a busy life. Here are some tips to get started.

Organize

If you’re managing school and a busy life, you’ll want to be as organized as possible:

  • Get a planner to stay on top of assignment due dates, deadlines, special class times, etc.
  • Use folders, notebooks, binders, and computer files to keep your work organized.
  • Get rid of clutter. It will help you stay organized and focused.
  • Do one thing at a time. Multitasking sounds like a good idea but it can make us less efficient and blur our focus. 

Study

Strong study habits can help you stay on track and ease stress:

  • Keep track of test dates and make time to study for exams.
  • Join a peer study group.
  • Find a place/time to study where there are no distractions.
  • Try to take your study materials when you’re on the go. You never know when you’ll have an extra 20 minutes to do some work. 

Plan

Planning ahead can help you manage school over the long run and the expectations of others:

  • How are you going to attend school and manage your other responsibilities? Think about this and make a plan. For example, enlist friends and family if you know you’ll need childcare help so they can plan as well.
  • Don’t let scheduling surprises get in the way. Again, ask friends and family for help if something comes up.
  • Plan ahead as much possible. For instance, make several meals for the week on Sunday so you don’t have to cook every night.

Online Medical Assisting Programs 

There are many online medical assisting programs, and they’re a great option for people who are juggling work or other responsibilities and need a flexible schedule.

But these programs are really hybrids, because you’ll need to show up for hands-on clinical training, whether it’s in a class, or at a local hospital, clinic, or another healthcare setting.

For the online portion of the program, you may have taped lectures that you can view at your convenience, or live lectures and question-and-answer time with your instructors via video conference.

Applying Previous Experience or Education Toward a Program

Sadighi says that in some cases, previous education and experience can count toward a medical assisting education. As an example, she says that a teenager who completes a health sciences program in high school may be able to transfer those credits to a community college and apply anywhere from three to 24 credits toward a medical assisting program.

In general, however, post-secondary medical assisting programs don’t give credit for previous education outside of medical assisting or waive any requirements based on previous experience, Sadighi says.

Paying for School

There are many resources available to help students pay for their education, including:

  • Federal financial aid
  • Student loans
  • Scholarships
  • School finance plans

To apply for federal financial aid or a student loan, you’ll need to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if you’re not interested in applying for aid, your school may still require you to fill out the FAFSA as part of your application.

If you’re not able to cover tuition, your school might have a payment plan. Your school’s admissions department is a good place to start.

Basic Costs

While programs differ, here are some expenses you can expect:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Books
  • School supplies
  • Uniform
  • Lab equipment
  • Other living costs that will have to be covered while you’re in school

Salary Potential and Career Outlook

What can you expect to earn once you land a job?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a medical assistant is $35,850. Many factors can affect your actual salary, including where you live, your experience, and whether you have certifications.

Jobs for medical assistants are expected to grow by 19% through 2029, much faster than the average 4% for all jobs. The nation’s aging population will drive a lot of this demand because it’s living longer.

As a result, the BLS says physicians in group or private practices, clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities need more medical assistants for clinical and administrative work.

Jobs for medical assistants are expected to grow by 19% through 2029, much faster than the average 4% for all jobs.

Advancing Your Career

You can advance your career by specializing as a medical assistant and earning credentials. In fact, the BLS says medical assistants who have a credential and can work with electronic health records (EHRs) may have an edge in the job market.

You can also deepen and expand your skills by stacking credentials. Because the healthcare industry is growing, the role of the medical assistant is expected to expand. It could be a good bet to consider earning credentials outside of your field to demonstrate your versatility to employers.

For instance, a credential in computer technology or interpersonal skills can help you stand out from the competition, and possibly bump up your salary. In time, stacking credentials could lead to new and exciting roles as a medical assistant.

hana larock

Written and reported by:
Hana LaRock
Contributing Writer

danielle sadighi

With professional insight from:
Danielle Sadighi
Founder, American Medical Certification Association (AMCA)