As of July 2018, medical assistantship constitutes one of the fastest-growing professional fields in the nation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the field will grow by 29% over the next decade, a rate far higher than the national average. With 634,400 paid medical assistant positions across the U.S. in 2016, the BLS projects that employers will offer nearly one million relevant positions by 2026.
This page provides a complete guide to medical assistance education. Students can explore why they should earn this degree, what they can do with it, different educational paths they can take, and different professional organizations that can bolster their careers.
Should I Get an Associate in Medical Assisting?
Medical assistant programs cater to a wide variety of individuals, including working professionals and recent high school graduates. Medical assistant programs also offer a significant return on investment, since this associate degree can open doors to many different positions in the field. These professionals perform a significant amount of on-the-job learning.
Students interested in medical assistant programs may choose from on-campus and online options. In most cases, on-campus programs best serve recent high school graduates who progress straight to college. Online programs often appeal to professionals already working in the field or individuals working in a different field who want to change careers. Online programs can also benefit students with other obligations, such as young children or volunteer work. Because of this, online students are often older individuals with more experience than on-campus students. Nevertheless, these guidelines do not constitute hard and fast rules. Students who live in remote areas — even recent high school graduates — often opt for online programs because of the convenience.
Medical assistant programs offer numerous benefits. A medical assistant associate degree can lead to either entry-level work or a bachelor's degree in health sciences. Additionally, students can network with peers and gain connections for employment. Additionally, internships and job placement assistance can help students secure a job after graduation.
What Can I Do With an Associate in Medical Assisting?
An associate in medical assisting can lead to a wide variety of careers in healthcare and emergency services. The BLS projects that most medical assisting careers will grow at rates that far outpace the national average over the next decade. The list below spotlights three of the most popular medical assisting careers. Each one requires diligent, thorough, hard-working individuals willing to work long shifts and abnormal hours, often in high-pressure situations.
- Medical Assistants
Medical assistant practice in a variety of healthcare settings, including clinics, hospitals, and medical offices. These professionals assist doctors and other medical professionals by performing both clinical and administrative tasks. Duties vary.
Median Annual Salary: $32,480
Projected Growth Rate: 29%
Phlebotomists draw blood from patients. They primarily work in hospital and laboratory settings. Phlebotomists must have exceptional interpersonal skills, since they explain procedures to patients and in some cases keep scared or anxious patients calm.
Median Annual Salary: $33,670
Projected Growth Rate: 25%
- EMT or Paramedic
These medical professionals respond to accidents, injuries, violent crimes, and other emergency situations. They care for injured and sick patients during critical moments. EMTs and paramedics also transport patients to hospitals and other healthcare facilities. These professionals frequently deal with life-and-death scenarios.
Median Annual Salary: $33,380
Projected Growth Rate: 15%
How to Choose an Associate in Medical Assisting Program
When assessing different medical assistant programs, students should investigate several key factors. The list below examines a few essential characteristics:
- Program Length: Students should determine how long their chosen program will take to complete. Full-time students can finish all courses faster than part-time students. For online programs, program length may vary based on whether courses follow a synchronous or asynchronous format.
- Program Cost: Students should ensure that they can afford their program of choice. Schools may charge tuition per credit or per semester. Most colleges also require additional fees.
- Program Curriculum: Students should make sure that their program offers both a wide variety of courses in the medical assisting field and specific courses in their areas of interest.
- Online or On-Campus: As discussed above, online courses often benefit working professionals and other busy students. On-campus courses usually cater to students who directly transition from high school to college.
- Field/Capstone Experience: Programs often require internships, projects, research papers, or other capstone experiences. Students interested in hands-on learning should investigate whether or not their program maintains connections with internship sites.
- Full-time or Part-time?: Working students may wish to enroll in part-time programs so that they can continue to work full-time. Part-time programs also allow students to fit courses into their busy schedules. Full-time programs, by contrast, allow students to complete their program more quickly.
- Accreditation: At minimum, students should make sure that their school has earned regional accreditation. See the accreditation section later in this guide for more information.
- Location: A school's location often affects future job opportunities, as well as cost of living. On-campus students may want to consider their personal preferences. Do you prefer the city, the country, or a small town? Do you prefer cold or hot weather? Do you like rain or snow? Do you like the beach or the mountains?
- Concentration/Specialization: Students who want to enter a specific field should ensure that their chosen program offers a related concentration or specialization. For instance, some schools may offer courses or concentrations in dental assisting. Many associate programs opt for a generalist approach and do not offer concentrations.
Programmatic Accreditation for Associate in Medical Assisting Programs
Accreditation indicates that a third party has vetted and approved a particular school. Non-accredited programs do not have to report to anyone except themselves, and students may find difficulties obtaining work with an unaccredited degree.
Before enrolling in any medical assistant program, students should first ensure that their chosen school has earned regional accreditation, and possibly national or programmatic accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversee regional accreditation through six smaller organizations. Each regional accreditation agency assesses colleges in a particular geographical area of the country. Students can use the CHEA website to find out if their chosen program holds accreditation.
The American Association of Medical Assistants recognizes program-specific accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools. This form of accreditation proves that programs instruct students in the specific skills necessary to succeed in the health services industry.
Associate in Medical Assisting Program Admissions
Though associate programs generally maintain less stringent admissions requirements than bachelor's programs, prospective students must still submit certain materials for consideration. In most cases, applicants must fill out some sort of application form and pay a fee. Students must also submit all previous high school and college transcripts. Many schools ask for a personal essay about topics such as career goals and personal challenges.
Online programs generally set similar admissions requirements as their on-campus counterparts. However, online admissions teams may ask students to demonstrate they can succeed without the structure of a physical classroom.
Students should generally apply to at least three schools, thereby ensuring that they have multiple options to choose from. Students can decide which schools to apply to by referring to the criteria in the previous section.
- Application: The application itself usually consists of either a form on a school's website or the Common App. The Common App is a standard application form that students can use to apply to multiple schools at once. Most applications include personal information, recommendations, and essays. Applications often take 5-15 hours to complete, although these numbers can vary.
- Transcripts: Transcripts document a student's previous academic experience. Transcripts list all of the courses students have taken and the grades they received in those courses. Students with prior college experience should submit both high school and college transcripts.
- Application Fee: Most schools require students to pay a fee to submit their applications. These fees often range from $30 to $90. Students who demonstrate need may receive a fee waiver.
Educational Paths for Online Medical Assisting Associate Programs
One of the most widely transferable degrees, an associate in medical assisting can set students up to pursue further study in the healthcare field. Students may choose to continue in health services, either by taking a generalist track or by specializing in a particular area of medicine. Alternately, learners can move on to administration. According to the BLS, health administrators usually earn much higher salaries.
- Bachelor's in Dental Hygiene
Medical assistants who want to specialize their trade can enroll in a dental hygiene program. Students learn how to assist dentists with cleaning, checkups, and orthodontics. Dental hygienists earn consistently high salaries, according to the BLS.
- Bachelor's in Health Service Administration
Students who transfer to this degree path can earn entry-level management positions in healthcare organizations. Students learn about economics, decision-making, and computers.
- Bachelor's in Healthcare Administration
A similar approach to a health service administration degree, this program covers different topics in a healthcare context, including finance, economics, marketing, epidemiology, and human resources.
What Else Can I Expect From an Associate in Medical Assisting Program?
Below, we spotlight general expectations and commonalities in medical assisting programs. This section discusses how long it takes to complete these programs, how much these programs generally cost, and courses that students can expect to take. As with any field, courses and details differ across programs and schools.
Courses in an Associate in Medical Assisting Program
The list below features descriptions of five courses featured in most medical assistant associate programs. Specific course names, materials, and details will likely differ depending on which school and program you pursue.
- Medical Office Coding
Coding medical records often makes up a crucial component of a medical assistant's day. This course instructs students on basic coding procedures and medical computer systems.
- Medical Office Systems and Procedures
Many medical offices and organizations use similar systems and procedures. This course familiarizes future medical assistants with these standards so that they can jump right in on their first day in the office.
- Medical Office Ethics and Law
Ethics and law make up a huge component of the medical field. As administrators who handle a medical organization's paperwork and compliance, medical assistants must become familiar with these topics. This course often uses case studies to help students learn ethics and laws through real-world scenarios.
Hands-on learning is a crucial component for any trade, and medical assisting is no exception. Students in this course spend time in an actual medical office in order to learn systems and procedures. Interns gain experience in a typically fast-paced medical environment.
- Medical Terminology
As the professionals who help run medical offices and organizations, medical assistants need to speak the language of medicine fluently. This course familiarizes students with the medical lexicon.
How Long Does It Take to Get an Associate in Medical Assisting?
Associate programs in medical assisting generally take two years of full-time study to complete. These degrees include around 64 credits. Several programmatic factors can affect completion time. For example, some programs only offer full-time or part-time study options. Students in part-time programs likely need more than two years to complete their degrees. Students should investigate whether their school offers an accelerated program, which can allow them to graduate more quickly.
In addition, students enrolled in online programs may opt for either synchronous or asynchronous programs. Programs that deliver coursework synchronously often come with more predictable completion times. Synchronous programs feature set class times and more accountability for students. Some schools — such as Western Governors University — offer entirely self-paced, asynchronous programs that allow students to earn their degrees as quickly as they can.
How Much Is an Associate in Medical Assisting?
Though this does not constitute a hard and fast rule, many associate programs in medical assisting cost between $300 and $700 per credit. Most online programs charge tuition per credit as opposed to per semester. However, prospective students should keep in mind that tuition costs can vary widely between programs. Many community colleges, for instance, charge much lower rates.
Several factors can affect program cost. For example, several schools allow online students to pay in-state tuition regardless of their location. In addition, many schools offer discounted prices (compared to on-campus courses) to students who strictly enroll in online courses. As such, online students mainly need to consider tuition and online fees when weighing the costs of programs.
On-campus students must take additional factors into account, including the cost of housing, technology costs, and general on-campus fees. In addition, on-campus students may have to pay for a meal plan at their college's cafeteria. On-campus students who want to get involved in campus life — perhaps by participating in intramural sports or a club, for example — should take those costs into account as well.
Professional Organizations in Medical Assisting
As in any field, students pursuing work in medical assisting can derive great value from professional organizations. These groups offer services such as job boards, annual conferences, professional development, continuing education, and publications. Additionally, networking opportunities can help recent graduates from medical assistant programs advance their careers. The list below spotlights three of the field's main organizations.