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Medical Assistant Programs

Multiple careers in the health care field are set to see huge employment increases as the population of baby boomers continues to advance in age, and medical assisting is far from an exception to that trend. Jobs for medical assistants are expected to surge by as much as 23 percent between 2014 and 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) — more than three times as much growth than what's expected for the job market as a whole.

Training for these careers is not terribly difficult to find, either. Check out this table that shows how many campus-based and online medical assistant schools and colleges can be found in each of eight U.S. regions, according to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES):

Region No. of institutions offering medical assistant degrees No. of institutions offering medical assistant degrees online
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 241 5
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 73 5
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 193 16
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 125 28
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 433 45
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 270 14
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 190 7
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 83 3
Total (all 50 states) 1,608 123

Entry-level medical assistant degrees

Most entry-level medical assisting programs can give you all the preparation you need to take the first steps into a growing health care career. Here's what you can expect when studying as an undergraduate at campus-based and online medical assistant schools and colleges:

  • Associate degrees - The associate degree is one of the more common forms that medical assistant programs take, particularly at community and junior colleges. Students typically get a firm introduction to health care as a career field while also studying clinical procedures, medical terminology, medical office procedures, electronic health record management, anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, biology and more. Associate degree programs typically take about two years of full time study to complete.
  • Bachelor's degrees - Four-year undergraduate degrees in medical assisting are relatively scarce, but students looking to move up in the health care field will often be considered more seriously for advanced positions if they take their education to at least the bachelor's level. Alternative subjects of study for medical assistants who aspire to more responsibility around the workplace include health care management, physician assisting, occupational therapy or business administration, as well as pre-pharmacy and pre-PT programs.
  • Non-degree study - Many institutions also offer diploma or certificate plans that can empower aspiring medical assistants to apply with confidence for the jobs they want. These non-degree medical assisting programs tend to require fewer overall courses than associate degree plans, which can allow students to finish more quickly but usually provides fewer transferable credit hours if you choose to move forward into a bachelor's degree program at a later date on your career trajectory.

Studying at online medical assistant schools can help bring the benefits of continued education to students without the time or financial resources to return to school in a traditional campus setting. Any required laboratory sections or hands-on coursework may be necessary to complete on campus or at a satellite facility, but the bulk of creditable hours required for online medical assisting programs are delivered in the virtual classroom.

Advanced-degree medical assistant programs

As your career goes on, it's likely that you'll become interested in pursuing greater challenges and reaping greater rewards for the investments of time and energy you make in your career. Here are a few directions you may choose to go when your thoughts turn toward advanced education and top-tier jobs:

  • Master's degree programs - Two master's degree subjects stand out as being particularly relevant to students with experience in medical assisting. Programs that lead to a Master of Science (MS) degree in health administration or healthcare management could be a great choice for medical assistants who hope to move into senior administrative positions, while master's degrees in physician assisting can give you the extra training necessary to take on a role with more direct patient interaction and increased clinical responsibility.
  • Doctorate and professional programs - Terminal academic degrees are associated with careers in professional scholarship or university education, while graduates with professional degrees typically practice medicine or a similarly sensitive profession at the highest level. Students who go on to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in medical science or health administration can move into positions of independent research or policymaking, for example, while those who finish medical school and earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree tend to work in hospitals or independent offices as licensed physicians.
  • Graduate certificates - Many medical assistant certificate programs are also available to graduate students, although earning a bachelor's degree is usually not a requirement for admission. Working medical assistants who already have a bachelor's degree can make use of non-degree work at the graduate level to enhance their knowledge of medical office protocols, pick up individual clinical skills or build their qualifications for a lateral move to a new segment of the health care field.

Online graduate study is far from impossible to find in the health care fields, particularly in subjects that have more administrative goals but also in such clinical pursuits as pharmacy and nursing. If you do choose an online school to follow up your medical assisting program with graduate study, make sure the institution is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency.

Q&A with an expert

Dr. Aaron Braun, medical director at SignatureCare Emergency Center in Houston, Texas

Dr. Aaron Braun, medical director at SignatureCare Emergency Center in Houston, TexasWhy would you encourage someone to consider a degree in medical assisting?

Dr. Braun: Working in a hospital can be a great path for some people, but medical assistants have the ability to work in clinics, specialist offices and more. You also have the advantage of getting more personal with patients, so this is a great position for a highly motivated people person who is interested in a healthcare profession.

What are the most common educational paths for those interested in becoming medical assistants?

Dr. Braun: There are a few ways to become a medical assistant. The first would be to obtain your high school diploma or GED and find a doctor who is willing to provide on the job training. The second option is to enter an accredited medical assistant program at a local school to get your certification.

What's something that prospective students should know about the medical assisting job market?

Dr. Braun: Medical assisting is one of the fastest growing healthcare jobs. It's projected to grow 23% from now until 2024, so it's a great opportunity to enter the healthcare market.

What are some other health care jobs in which medical assistants might find a similar use for their training?

Dr. Braun: There are a few things you can do within the realm when you get your degree or certification. You will be able to assist with clinical and administrative tasks in the clinic or hospital you work for. You can also work with insurance and claim issues. EKG and blood testing are also some paths a medical assistant could go down.

What's some advice you would give to a student who's thinking about enrolling in a medical assisting degree program?

Dr. Braun: Medical assistants are often some of the most important people for both the doctors in the clinic and the patients they deal with. It's a growing area of the health care profession with a lot of opportunity. Stick to your training, learn as much as you can and maintain a friendly personality and you will succeed.

Types of medical assistant careers

Programs from medical assistant colleges typically target their training for the specific demands of the occupation, but the clinical terminology and habits taught in medical assistant schools can be useful in a range of related professions. Here's a table of careers that may require additional education or licensing but make use of similar skills to those learned by medical assistants, along with some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about national employment and average annual salaries:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2015)
Projected job growth
(2014-2024)
Total U.S. employment
(2014)
Entry-level education
Medical assistant $31,910 23 percent 591,300 Postsecondary non-degree award
Dental assistant $36,920 18 percent 318,800 Postsecondary non-degree award
Dental hygienist $72,720 19 percent 200,500 Associate degree
Occupational therapy assistant $58,340 40 percent 41,900 Associate degree
Pharmacy technician $34,560 9 percent 372,500 High school diploma or equivalent
Licensed practical/vocational nurse $44,030 16 percent 719,900 Postsecondary non-degree award

Common misconceptions about medical assistant degrees

Medical assistants aren't the most visible pieces of a well-oiled medical facility, so there's likely to be some misunderstanding about the career field in general. Here are a few of the more common incorrect notions about medical assistant programs and careers:

Misconception: Medical assistants and nurses do the same job.

  • Fact: Nurses and medical assistants may have a few responsibilities in common at certain facilities, but each position as a whole is fairly distinct from the other. Nurses, particularly registered or advanced practice nurses, tend to focus the bulk of their attention on patient care, while medical assistants are often assigned a variety of duties that may include patient care, basic administration, billing and more. Nursing also requires the completion of a nursing program, while medical assistants in some cases may be trained exclusively on the job.

Misconception: There's no point in starting out in the medical field unless you first get a long-term degree.

  • Fact: Clinical experience of any kind can be an asset when seeking more advanced positions in health care, and medical assistants gain a fairly broad range of entry-level experience in clinical environments. Jobs that constitute a move up the career ladder may require more certification or schooling than typical medical assistant work, but getting that required education while continuously working to earn health care experience can give you a leg up on your competition when the time comes to bring your new skills to market.

Misconception: Online programs are an "easy way out" when training for health care jobs.

  • Fact: It may come as a surprise to some of you, but educating yourself doesn't become easier just because you don't have to travel to sit in a classroom several mornings a week. Many prospective students may find it easier to make online education fit into their busy schedules, sure, but it takes skill at cooperative communication, self-supervision and internal motivation to get the most out of an online degree program and complete it successfully. Lazy students should probably consider steering clear.

How can I enroll in an online medical assistant degree program?

Each institution sets its own policies for enrollment and requirements for admission, so the best thing to do is reach out directly to schools that look like they might be right for you. Browse through our listings below, find a few places to start and get in touch with a registrar or admissions counselor to learn more.

Sources:
1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed July 10, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
2. School pages, accessed July 27, 2016: Medical Assistant Associate Degree, Penn Foster College, http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/medical-and-health-careers/medical-assistant-associate-degree; Associate Degree in Medical Assisting, Bryant & Stratton College, https://www.bryantstratton.edu/degrees/associate-degrees/aas-medical-assisting; Medical Assistant, Lewis-Clark State College, http://www.lcsc.edu/business-technology/degree-programs/medical-assistant/; Physician Assistant, Bachelor of Science, St. John's University, http://www.stjohns.edu/academics/schools-and-colleges/college-pharmacy-and-health-sciences/programs-and-majors/physician-assistant-bachelor-science; Medical Assisting Certificate, The College of Health Care Professions, http://www.chcp.edu/degrees-certificates/online/medical-assisting-certificate; Medical Assistant Training, Virginia College, https://www.vc.edu/diplomas-certificates/medical-assistant/; Medical Assistant Certificate, Kaplan University, http://www.kaplanuniversity.edu/health-sciences/medical-assistant-certificate.aspx; Master of Science in Healthcare Management, The University of Texas at Dallas, http://jindal.utdallas.edu/masters-programs/ms-healthcare-management/; A Distance Learning Pathway to a Doctor of Pharmacy Degree, Creighton University, https://spahp.creighton.edu/future-students/doctor-pharmacy/pathways
3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed June 10, 2016: Medical Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm; Dental Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm; Dental Hygienists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm; Pharmacy Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/pharmacy-technicians.htm; Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm; Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm
4. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed July 10, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm

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