Hybrid programs that combine online and in-person coursework for aspiring medical assistants are available as diploma and associate's degree programs. Students will also have to complete clinical training. Fully online programs in this field are rare due to the nature of medical assisting. Students looking for a fully online program in the medical field may pursue an associate's degree in health information technology.
While formal education beyond a high school diploma may not be necessary for a career as a medical assistant, college-level training and voluntary certification are preferred by many employers.
Medical Assistant Diploma
Focusing on the core skills and essential information needed by medical assistants, a diploma program varies by school from approximately 1-1.5 years in length. Successfully completing the course sequence entitles individuals to sit for a national exam and become certified by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
Educational prerequisites for the diploma program are typically a high school diploma or its equivalent, although this may not always be mandatory. Coursework and communication largely takes place online, so all aspiring students must have access to a personal computer with access to the Web. Hands-on clinical training, either on campus or at a designated healthcare facility, enables the student to put the theories learned at home to practice on-site.
In a diploma program, courses are often completely pre-planned without much class choice flexibility, although students may be able to choose the order of completion. The following classes are basic components of any medical assistance diploma programs because they teach enrollees how to contextualize, discuss and apply their knowledge.
Anatomy and Physiology
This introductory course covers the main principles of human anatomy and physiology, basic chemistry, cell anatomy and tissue studies. It also provides a broad overview of all the body systems, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, urinary, endocrine, lymphatic, digestive and reproductive systems.
The language of medicine and its importance is addressed in this course. Basic medical terms and abbreviations for all major body parts and systems, medical conditions and medication administration are taught.
The class provides a general overview of essential skills needed to work with ill and injured patients. Topics include procedural gowning and gloving, HIPAA, OSHA regulations, infection control, laboratory safety and the measurement of vital signs. Hands-on practice may include assisting in minor surgeries and blood collection.
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Medical Assistant Associate of Applied Science
The Associate of Applied Science (AAS) program provides much more in-depth education than a diploma program, and requires a greater time commitment; typically, students can expect to spend 1.5-2 years studying for the degree. Earning an AAS permits graduates to sit for the AAMA national exam that may lead to certification.
Applicants are typically expected to hold a high school degree or its equivalent to be considered for acceptance to an AAS program; there are usually no other prerequisites. The program is a mix of online instruction and hands-on clinical training, either at the school or in a professional healthcare setting. Since some coursework is delivered online, prospective students must have access to a computer with Internet connection.
Unlike diploma programs, associate's degree programs require general education units and electives to round out the curriculum. However, core courses may be comparable to those found in a more concise program. A few of these are outlined below.
Pharmacology is the study of pharmaceutical drugs, their classifications and their applications. Students learn about the physical and mental impact drugs can have on the body, how they potentially interact with one another and the types of adverse reactions that may occur.
This class discusses the science and physics of x-rays, the terms and equipment used for internal imaging and the techniques used to properly process films. Students review the muscular and skeletal systems and relate them to radiology practice. They also explore safety concerns and methods to minimize risk.
Healthcare Ethics and Law
This introductory course discusses basic, but critical, legal and ethical values as well as the connection between them and their relevance to the American healthcare system. Students are taught the importance of ethical decision-making in terms of both personal and professional values. They also study HIPAA, healthcare law, medical documentation handling, professional codes, licensure and accreditation.
There is no legal requirement for individuals to obtain a formal education of any kind, nor take any type of exam, in order to work as a medical assistant. However, earning a degree from an accredited school and becoming certified by AAMA or another recognized organization is usually either mandatory or strongly favored by employers, and greater experience and education is linked to higher salaries.
Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical assistants held approximately 601,240 jobs as of May 2015. The BLS projected job growth of 23%, much faster than the average for all occupations, from 2014-2024. Earnings for these professionals vary; the middle 50% earned between $26,080 and $36,800 as of May 2015 (www.bls.gov).
Medical assistants who are certified through AAMA must recertify every five years. Obtaining continuing education units (CEUs) satisfies this recertification requirement. Those who opt not to recertify are not permitted to use the credential in connection with existing or future employment.
Medical assisting programs are not commonly available fully online, though most of the coursework can be completed online. Students in these programs complete clinical training in addition to coursework in anatomy and physiology, pharmacology and radiology. Individuals who want to study completely online may look into associate's programs in health information technology.