Associates Degrees in the Medical Field for High-Demand Careers

Associate's-level programs in dental, physical therapy and medical assisting prepare students for these high-demand careers with courses in key topics and direct experience opportunities.

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Essential Information

Programs in dental assisting, physical therapy assisting and medical assisting emphasize the study of office management, business operations and supporting medical staff. These programs typically span two years or less and may include internships, clinical and laboratory components, along with coursework. General education units are also a part of the curriculum. Graduation requirements may affect program length. Voluntary certifications may be available to those who fulfill experience and educational requirements. Applicants must have a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Students might need CPR certification prior to admission. Additionally, graduates of some programs may need to complete registration or licensing, depending on the laws in their individual states.

Associate of Dental Assisting

Dental assistants perform a variety of office tasks, from scheduling appointments and managing the office, to sterilizing equipment and assisting the practitioner. The agency that accredits dental assisting education programs is the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association. Some class titles may be:

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

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. Some colleges want applicants to have taken algebra, chemistry and biology while in high school, passing with a grade 'C' or better. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education is the agency that accredits programs offered by colleges and universities. 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

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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, with both clinical and office aspects. 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. Schools may require applicants to take placement tests and have prior foundational courses. 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

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. Re-certification 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.

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.

Medical field students 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 healthcare 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.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The BLS predicted jobs for dental assistants to increase by 18% during the 2014-2024 period. The median salary for dental assistants was $35,980 in 2015. Physical therapy assistants are expected to see 41% job growth with a median salary of $55,170, while medical assistants could have a 23% employment increase and earn a median of $30,590 during the same periods.

Dental assisting associate's programs have core courses in dental structure, oral infections and procedure, while physical therapy and medical assisting programs have central units in muscle analysis and pharmacology. All 3 programs have science and office management classes in common.

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