Medical Assistant Training Programs – What Should I Look For Before Choosing One?
If you’re considering medical assisting as a career, you have a lot to consider. Most importantly is the quality of your medical assisting education. Medical assistants take on a lot of responsibility and are directly tied to caring for others’ health. Having a great education can make or break how prepared you are for those responsibilities. Here are a few things to consider when looking for the perfect medical assisting program.
Types of Programs
There are two types of medical assisting training programs: Associate degree and diploma. The associate degree program is generally 2 to 2 ½ years in length. You’ll earn an associate of applied science degree when completed. This medical assisting degree type offers a broader learning experience than a diploma program. You’ll take liberal arts courses as well as general education and core medical classes. An associate degree program is a good choice if you plan to further your education in the future.
A diploma of medical assisting is shorter—about nine months to one year. It is a tightly focused program that teaches you only core medical assisting courses. You’ll complete the medical assisting program much quicker-meaning you’ll be in the workforce sooner. If you plan to make medical assisting your career and don’t need additional college credits for higher education later, a diploma program may be a good choice.
Why is accreditation important?
- No matter which degree type you choose, make sure the school you pick is fully accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). These certifying bodies demand that a school adhere to strict educational standards.
- If you choose a school that is not accredited, you risk not being eligible for federal educational loans or grants. Additionally, you may not be able to take the certifying exam for medical assistants after graduation. The CMA, or certified medical assistant, designation may only be earned through the American Association of Medical Assistants; the AAMA only allows graduates of accredited healthcare programs to sit for this exam.
What you’ll Learn during the program
Medical assisting education is a blend of basic coursework to help you build a good educational foundation, advanced classes and practical, hands-on learning. General education requirements and core courses may vary slightly from program to program.
You may be required to take general education classes:
- Basic English and grammar
- College math
- Computer skills
- Biology or Chemistry
If you’re a recent high school graduate, you may be able to apply successful high school coursework to these requirements.
If you’re taking an associate degree medical assisting program, you may be required to take:
- Business Communications
- Other liberal arts courses
Core classes make up the bulk of any medical assisting program. These core classes educate you about the human body and the foundations of medical practice. Additionally, because medical assistants perform both clinical and administrative duties, you’ll learn back-office skills as well.
Core medical assisting courses may include:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Medical terminology
- Medical billing and coding
- Clinical practice
- Laboratory courses
In addition to coursework, medical assistant programs offer students the ability to perform externships. An externship allows you to work hand-on in a medical facility, putting your newly learned skills to use. Many students choose to rotate externship experiences, meaning they work in several areas of medicine and not just one. Depending on the program’s rules and the type of degree you’re earning, you may be able to start externships after a few months in the program. Students seeking an associate degree may have a longer time to rotate through externship sites than those in a diploma program.
What about Online Schools – Are they overlooked by potential employers?
In this digital age, it’s not uncommon to see advertisements for online schools that offer medical assisting degrees via the internet. These programs often allow you to complete most of your coursework online and require that you find your own externship sponsors. Because hands-on training is required, you’ll be responsible for finding a medical facility that is willing to allow you to complete your externship requirement with them. Alternately, some online programs have established relationships with certain medical facilities that allow students to extern. When researching online medical assisting programs, find out how externships are sourced and where you may be able to complete yours.
Be wary of online schools that lack credibility or just don’t “feel” right. It’s in your best interest to work with a school that is accredited. Online programs may not adhere to the strict requirements needed for accreditation. In turn, your ability to become certified as a medical assistant is jeopardized.
Medical assistant training can be expensive, so it pays to do your research and shop around. Costs for a diploma in medical assisting can range from a few thousand dollars to upward of $6,000 to $9,000 or more. Associate degree programs can range from $15,000 to $30,000. The cost of a program depends on several factors:
Tuition may be higher in certain areas of the United States. Schools in larger cities, or areas with greater employment opportunities, may cost more. When looking for a school, don’t dismiss small-town schools as they may offer a comparable medical assisting program for a fraction of the cost.
2. Degree offered
An associate degree in medical assisting requires more coursework which adds to the cost of the overall program. You’ll be required to take general education as well as liberal arts classes, in addition to core medical assisting classes when working towards an associate degree.
Believe it or not, name recognition may add to the overall cost of attending certain colleges. Think of Yale or any other Ivy League school, for instance. You’re not only paying for an incredible education, but the stellar reputation of the school as well. When looking at medical assisting schools, consider how the popularity of the institution may be adding to the overall cost of your education. Look at other programs in the area and compare costs to get an idea.
You may be able to cut costs of the program or keep fees down. Be sure to apply for any state, federal or college-funded grants that you may be eligible for. Additionally, find out if any college credits you’ve already taken at another school will transfer to the medical assisting program. Or, if you’re proficient in certain courses, like college-level math or English, ask about challenging general education classes. Some schools allow you to test out of certain courses by taking a challenge exam; the cost to take a challenge exam is generally much smaller than paying for the full-credit course.