Online Medical Assistant Schools
Medical assistants are an integral part of physicians’ offices and clinics. In general, they perform both clinical and administrative duties, both working with patients to prepare them for an exam and keeping the office running smoothly and efficiently. As a medical assistant, you’ll go from taking vitals and medical history to scheduling patients and prepping insurance forms.
There is growing demand for medical assistants, so a certificate or degree can lead to a stable job with minimal time in school. However, as more schools offer medical assisting certificates and degrees, a new problem emerges: It’s hard to research them all! Online medical assistant programs add even more options.
The goal of this page is to help you learn about online medical assistant programs and to consider whether an online program is right for you. It explores the benefits of taking medical assistant classes online, what to look for in an online program, and what the experience of being in an online program might be like.
Why Choose an Online Medical Assistant Program?
Online programs have several benefits beyond convenience and flexibility. Here are some advantages of becoming a medical assistant online:
- Time for what’s important: Online medical assistant programs allow more flexibility for working students and those with families —students who can often only study during certain hours. Moreover, online programs allow students who live farther away from colleges to attend school without wasting time commuting.
- Pacing: Self-paced study and more frequent start dates mean you can often finish faster — or take your time if necessary.
- Study environment: On-campus programs require classroom-based learning. Online courses let you choose where to learn and incorporate a variety of learning methods.
- More review options: Video lectures and online discussion boards allow you to revisit what you’ve learned at any time without relying solely on notes.
- Cost: As online programs have become more popular, many schools have figured out how to lower costs. A 2018 report from the Boston Consulting Group and Arizona State University on six colleges found that several offered online courses at a 3% to 50% discount per credit hour compared to on-campus programs.
- Performance: That same report found that all six of the public colleges it studied showed higher retention and graduation rates from students who took some online courses. That jives with an earlier U.S. Department of Education report that found online programs to be just as effective as on-campus programs. Hybrid programs benefitted learners the most.
That last note is particularly good news for you, since most online medical assistant programs are hybrid or have optional externships. That means you will be traveling to a local clinic or doctor’s office to put your skills into practice. Many schools are adept at forming relationships with local clinics so students can complete their studies from almost anywhere.
How to Choose an Online Medical Assistant Program
Online education allows you to cast a nationwide net for the best schools, since you’re not tied to one area. So cast that net! Look into many schools, not just a few. Most online programs now have regular start dates throughout the year, meaning you don’t need to rush to get in with the next group.
Here are some things to consider as you look.
Types of Online Programs
Your first big decision on the path to becoming an MA is whether to pursue a certificate or get your degree. Either one works, and there are plenty of online options for both, but they have different structures in regard to time and focus:
- Certificate: This is typically a 30–40 credit program that, once you complete, qualifies you to sit for certification exams and be hired as a medical assistant. Certificate programs take most students one year to finish.
- Diploma: Certificate and diploma programs are often indistinguishable, but a diploma program often packs more in and takes a little more time to complete — it might require 40–60 credits. Like a certificate, a diploma features clinicals and qualifies you to sit for certification exams.
- Associate degree: An associate degree is a two-year option that features more than medical assistant coursework — it also rolls in general education requirements in areas such as English and social sciences. Associate degrees are usually a minimum of 90 credits, with at least 60 of those directly related to the concentration. They take longer to complete, but for students with an eye further up on the healthcare or education ladder, the degree can be a better choice, since associate degree credits usually transfer straight into a bachelor’s program.
In choosing an online program, it is important to find out wither the institution is accredited. Accreditation is a process that colleges go through to show that their programs meet basic standards. In the case of career colleges with medical assistant diplomas and degrees, this includes placing a certain number of graduates in jobs in that field. That’s important because your goal is to get a medical assistant job as soon as possible after you graduate.
Most schools choose to get accreditation because without it, they can’t provide federal financial aid (e.g., student loans). While this makes researching options a bit easier, you should still understand some accreditation basics.
First, there are two types of accreditors for schools: national and regional. Though you might think that national accreditation is more desirable, this isn’t always the case. Regional accreditation is older and usually considered to be more prestigious; these schools include both big universities and local community colleges. In addition, degrees earned from schools with regional accreditation more easily transfer to other programs — an important point if you’re eying a bachelor’s. Credit earned at nationally accredited schools may not be accepted at regionally accredited schools.
Second, not all accreditation is equal. You’ll want to make sure that your school’s accreditation is from a recognized body. To do so, search the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s database. If the school is there, you’re in the clear.
Finally, there’s also accreditation that applies to specific programs within a school. In the case of medical assisting, you may want to see if your program is accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Without such accreditation, you won’t be able to pursue certain types of certification after graduating.
Accreditation is a good baseline, but you’ll need to do more research to establish that your targeted programs are reputable and will help you achieve your goals. Factors such as average graduate salaries, student outcomes, student body diversity, and average student debt across schools are important to consider. College Scorecard, a Department of Education tool, can help you compare these factors and others.
Loan default rate is another thing to check. In 2015 — the most recent year for which data is available — 13% of associate degree holders were behind with their loan payments. This figure was 34% for those who earned a certificate or finished some college. You’ll want to make sure your school is on the lower side of that average as high default rates can be tied to low job placement.
While such tools provide a picture of a school’s overall reputation, they can’t tell much about individual programs. To learn that, you should reach out to enrolled students and, if possible, recent graduates. Check online for testimonials or reviews or connect via social media. And don’t be afraid to gather recommendations from medical assistants working in the field.
Of course, cost is a major factor in choosing a program. In an ideal world, you want to finish with as little debt as possible. Students at accredited schools are eligible for federal — and, typically, by extension, state — financial aid. While some of that aid comes in the form of grants and scholarships, the bulk of it is from student loans, which have to be paid back.
The Online Medical Assistant Program Experience
Because being a medical assistant involves working face-to-face with patients, it important that programs include hands-on components. As such, online medical assistant programs are essentially hybrid programs.
On one side are on-site clinicals, which can comprise much of your program unless you choose an administrative path or are focused on billing and coding. These concentrations typically don’t feature externships.
On the other side are classes. With an online program, you’ll typically use the same curriculum and receive the same level of teaching as you would on campus. The main difference is the delivery.
In your courses, you will likely see a variety of delivery methods, including:
- Video lectures: Lectures are lectures, but in this case you’ll be watching them on a computer or other electronic device rather than in a classroom.
- Discussion boards: Like a social media page centered around a topic, a discussion board is a place for teachers to post assignments and for students to have the types of conversations that might otherwise happen during an on-campus class.
- Video conferences: One step up from a discussion board, video conferences allow for real-time collaboration and discussion between students. This method is often used for Q&As after a lecture and can also be vital for group projects.
- Online exams: These exams may be timed or structured in different ways. As with in-class exams, you will generally need to take them at set points during the program.
While online learning features flexibility, it comes with its own challenges. Many students struggle with staying disciplined outside of a traditional classroom, so you’ll need to establish a routine for school. You can do so by setting up a desk and computer away from other people and carving out dedicated time to study and take part in class discussions. The kitchen table, though great for snacking, can lead to too many distractions.
Online Medical Assistant Certification
After earning your medical assisting diploma or degree, you may want to get certified. No, not a certificate: a certification. Certification is a voluntary process that shows you know your stuff and helps you stand out to employers.
There are multiple certifications in the field, including the registered medical assistant (RMA) certification, but the primary credential is the certified medical assistant (CMA). To become a CMA, you must pass a test given by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Anyone who has graduated from a medical assisting program accredited by ABHES or CAAHEP within the last year can take the exam. It covers both general healthcare workplace skills (e.g., typing and insurance coding) and specialized medical knowledge (e.g., anatomy and lab procedures).