What Kind of Degree Should a Medical Assistant Have?

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Angie Best-Boss is an award-winning freelance medical writer, editor and author of seven books on women’s health.

Medical assisting is a popular vocation that has been growing in recent years. Most medical assistants receive formal training beyond the high school level. Courses are typically completed at a vocational school or a community college, and training programs last for one or two years.

Certificate vs. Associate Degree

If you are considering medical assisting as a career, you have a couple of options. The first option is to obtain a certificate in medical assisting. It usually takes about a year to complete a certificate program. Associate degrees require two years of coursework.

Courses for both programs might include topics like anatomy and physiology, medical transcription, insurance processing, first aid, and medical terminology among many other things. You might also complete an internship in a physician’s office or other health care facility for hands-on training and experience.

Two accrediting agencies, the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP), work to establish policies and procedures that ensure quality medical assistant training for students.

Both programs are great ways to get into the field; however, there are a couple of differences you should consider before enrolling. In addition to time requirements and cost, you might also find that having an associate degree makes transferring to a four-year institution a little easier. If you plan to earn a more advanced degree in the future, this benefit is an important consideration.

Having a two-year degree might also give you a certain advantage over certificate holders when applying for jobs. Look at the job openings in your area to see what minimum qualifications employers expect from job candidates.

What You Will Learn

With a certificate, you are qualified to update patient records, code and file insurance forms, schedule appointments and set up hospital admissions and lab services. More clinical job duties include things like collecting specimens and taking and recording vitals for patients’ records.

With an associate degree, you are qualified to perform many of the same functions, but you may also authorize prescription refills, draw blood, remove stitches, and prepare and administer medications under a physician’s supervision. In some states medical assistants can also give injections or take x-rays after passing an exam.

Salary Info and Job Prospects

The amount of money you can make as a medical assistant will vary depending on your years of experience, your skill or degree level, and your location. According to the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median annual income for medical assistants in May 2008 was $28,300, and the middle 50 percent of medical assistants made between $23,700 and $33,050 annually.

People who enter the field of medical assisting have a promising future. Employment is expected to grow, and the Department of Labor projects that it will be one of the fasting growing occupations from 2008 to 2018.