Associates Degrees in the Medical Field for High-Demand Careers

Read about associate's degree programs that prepare students to pursue in-demand healthcare careers. See educational prerequisites, program coursework and employment outlook statistics.

Essential Information

Dental assistant, physical therapy assistant and medical assistant are three high-demand careers in the medical field. Associate's-level programs exist that can prepare individuals for work in these growing career areas. Emphasizing the study of dental office management and chair-side assisting, exercise therapy and physicians' office operations, respectively, these programs typically span two years or less and may include internships and laboratory components along with coursework. Students might need CPR certification prior to admission, and graduates of some programs may require registration or licensing, depending on the laws in their individual states. Voluntary certifications may be available to those who fulfill experience and educational requirements.

Associate of Dental Assisting

Dental assistants perform a variety of tasks in a dental office, from scheduling appointments and managing the office to sterilizing equipment and assisting the practitioner. It is a high demand career in the medical field, and one of the fastest growing occupations in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). An associate's degree program prepares individuals for the scope and variety of dental assisting tasks. There are also many certificate programs in dental assisting that are typically shorter in duration than an associate's degree and may appeal to those who have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field. The agency that accredits dental assisting education programs is the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association.

Educational Prerequisites

A high school diploma or GED equivalent is required. Some schools require applicants have a current CPR certification and take an introductory course before starting the program.

Program Coursework

Like many associate's degree programs, dental assisting includes some general education, such as math, social science, science and humanities, in addition to focused coursework in dental science and procedures. Most programs include one or more internship experiences. Some class titles may be:

  • Foundations of dentistry
  • Anatomy for dental professionals
  • Basics of chairside procedures
  • Controlling infection
  • Managing dental offices

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The BLS predicted jobs for dental assistance to increase by 31% during the 2010-2020 period, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. A greater demand for dental services, such as preventive dental care, is one of the reasons for the increase. The average salary for dental assistants was $35,080 in 2012.

Continuing Education, Certification and Licensing

The Dental Assisting National Board is a professional organization that offers dental assistants job resources and continuing education opportunities. The board also has certification programs for professionals in the field. The Certified Dental Assistant credential is awarded to those who pass a rigorous exam, which includes chairside assisting, radiation health and safety, and infection control. Recertification requires continuing education. The American Medical Technologists also has a certification program for dental assistants that generally requires taking an accredited program and passing an exam.

Most states require that dental assistants be registered and licensed, but the requirements may vary, according to the BLS. Since there are no national standards, those with an interest in dental assisting should check with their home state for licensing details.

Associate of Physical Therapy Assisting

Physical therapy assistants work under the direction of physical therapists in a variety of places, such as sports clinics, hospitals and schools, helping to restore physical function to those who may be suffering from injury or disease. It is a job that also is high demand, according to the BLS. An associate's degree program will prepare individuals interested in the field for work and licensing through classes and clinical experiences. There are also many certificate programs in physical therapy assisting for those who may have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated area. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education is the agency that accredits programs offered by colleges and universities.

Educational Prerequisites

A high school diploma or GED equivalent is required. Some colleges want applicants to have taken algebra, chemistry and biology while in high school, passing with a grade 'C' or better.

Program Coursework

The typical 2-year program includes general education, such as math and English composition, along with focused coursework in physical therapy. Most programs have one or more clinical internship experiences. Some class topics include:

  • Physical therapists on a health care team
  • Basic and advanced anatomy and physiology
  • Exercise as therapy
  • Muscle testing and posture analysis
  • Physical therapy for patients with medical conditions

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The BLS predicted a 46% job growth rate for physical therapy assistants for 2010-2020. This is much higher than the national average for all occupations, which is 14%. An aging population and a desire to keep health care costs down were some of the reasons cited by the BLS for the growing demand. Physical therapy assistants made an average salary of $52,320 in 2012.

Continuing Education, Certification and Licensing

Physical therapy assistants looking to advance in their field may pursue a bachelor's degree in physical therapy, although employers often prefer a master's degree, according to the BLS. The American Physical Therapy Association is a professional organization that offers job placement help and continuing education opportunities in physical therapy. Most states license physical therapy assistants. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy is an organization that works with individual state licensing boards and administers the National Physical Therapy Exam required for licensing.

Associate of Medical Assisting

Medical assistants can serve a variety of roles in a physician's office, medical center or clinic, from scheduling appointments to assisting doctors and nurses. Many schools offer an associate's degree program for entry-level training in medical assisting. There are also many certificate programs in medical assisting, which are shorter in duration and may appeal to those who have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field. The typical associate's degree program offers a mix of classroom and internship training on both the clinical aspects and running a medical office. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools accredit medical assisting programs, along with programs for other health professions.

Educational Prerequisites

A high school diploma or GED equivalent is required, as is a strong background in algebra. Schools may require applicants to take placement tests and foundation courses may be required.

Program Coursework

Like many associate's degree programs, medical assisting associate's degree programs typically include general education, such as English composition, computers and algebra. Many programs also include an internship. Class titles may include:

  • Medical terms and meanings
  • Medical billing and coding
  • Anatomy and physiology basics
  • Foundations in pharmacology
  • Clinical and laboratory procedures for medical assistants

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

In addition to medical assistant, job titles that may be available for a graduate of this type of program include medical billing specialist, medical secretary or medical records specialist. The BLS predicted employment for medical assistants to increase by 31% from 2010-2020, due in part to an expansion in preventive medical care for baby boomers and the switch to electronic records. The average salary for a medical assistant was $30,550 in 2012.

Continuing Education and Certification

Those who want to continue their education and advance into other careers may wish to seek a bachelor's degree program in medical assisting, which prepares graduates for more responsibility as a health care provider under the supervision of a doctor. There are also advanced degree programs in medical billing and medical records management.

Professional associations offer continuing education opportunities as well as certification programs for professionals in the field. The American Association of Medical Assistants requires that applicants for certification get an education from an accredited program and pass a national exam to get the Certified Medical Assistant credential. The American Medical Technologists offer a medical assistant certification that also requires taking an accredited education program and passing an exam.

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