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Earn A Medical Assistant Certificate or Diploma

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Earning a medical assistant certificate or medical assistant diploma is often a popular educational option for prospective medical assistants, but what exactly is the difference between the two?[i]

With a flurry of students and employed professionals trying to improve their education and enhance their careers, certificates and diplomas have become increasingly popular, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.[a] However, it is very easy to get confused about the difference between the two. Moreover, some institutions use the terms interchangeably, which can be puzzling.  Here are some answers to a few frequently asked questions about medical assistant certificates and diplomas:

What is a medical assisting certificate?

In general, both a medical assistant certificate and medical assistant diploma are a series of classes centered around a specialized area. They are designed to either: equip students with the knowledge necessary to advance to higher level of study or prepare students to gain a credential necessary for their profession - a medical assistant certificate or diploma would likely fall into the second category. A medical assistant diploma or certificate can be pursued either after you have graduated high school or at any stage of your life and career. These programs can be found at local community colleges, trade schools, and other institutions that offer vocational training, including online colleges. You’ll usually explore topics like human anatomy, medical terminology, clinical procedures, and administrative skills. Most programs include both classroom learning and laboratory work.[ii]

How long does it take to complete a medical assistant certificate vs a medical assistant diploma?

Certificate and diploma programs are generally less time-consuming learning options compared to typical associates or bachelor's degree program. While pursuing a bachelor's degree may give you a lengthy and more in-depth overview of the field in general, certificates and diploma programs are in generally quicker and more focused. 

In general, a diploma is lengthier and more in-depth compared to certificate programs, but typically not as long as an associate's degree program. While program completion times vary, a typical certificate takes about one year to earn. [ii]/p>

Do I need a medical assistant certificate or medical assistant diploma?

A certificate or diploma is one of several career preparation options you could pursue if you’re hoping to become a medical assistant. Some students choose to earn a medical assistant certificate or diploma, while others opt to learn on the job. You may be surprised to find that formal education is actually not a state or federal requirement for medical assistants. However, employers often prefer candidates who have completed postsecondary education in medical assisting.[ii] Also, keep in mind that completion of a career training program is sometimes a prerequisite for earning professional certification, which some employers may desire you to have.[ii] While the choice is yours, many medical assistants consider a postsecondary certificate to be the required level of education for a career in this field. [i]

What will I learn from a medical assisting certificate or diploma program?

Some aspects of a medical assisting career, like tidying the examination room or scheduling patient appointments, may seem like common sense. Other typical duties, like managing EHR (Electronic Health Records) databases, collecting blood and tissue samples, performing lab tests, understanding ;medical knowledge and vocabulary, clerical skills, knowledge of special software, will most likely need to be learned.[i] After all, you’ve probably never used a Baumanometer or Spirometer[i] before! A good medical assistant program should cover what you need to know in order to pursue an entry-level career track in this field. Of course, some critical medical assisting skills, like a caring attitude, teamwork, and good communication, will be entirely up to you. 

Can I enroll in a medical assistant certificate or diploma online?

Yes! You can earn a medical assistant diploma online and a medical assistant certificate online as they are both options worth considering. Online learning can be a good fit for busy, working adults who are pursuing a career change but are strapped for time. While an online certificate program will require the same commitment as a classroom-based program, you’ll typically have the flexibility of being able to attend class at the time and place that works best for you.

What should I look for in a medical assisting certificate program?

Medical assistant certificate programs are widely available, but not every program is up to par. Looking for an accredited program is a good place to start. Accreditation indicates that a program upholds the standards of the medical assisting field, as determined by an accrediting agency. [iii] If you want to become a CMA (Certified Medical Assistant), for example, you will need to select a program that has been accredited by either CAAHEP (Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs) or ABHES (Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools).[iv] Other considerations include flexibility and location, if you are a working adult student. Online certificate programs may be an option if you find it difficult to attend classes during the day due to work or other commitments. Finally, you may want to look for a program that offers a practicum at a hospital or healthcare center, which could help you gain a better understanding of what it’s like to work in this challenging and exciting field.

What else should I look for in my medical assistant diploma or certificate program?

Remember, your aim is not just to earn a credential, but to prepare for the skills you’ll need in your prospective career. Choose a diploma program with a good reputation for helping students like you pursue their professional goals. For starters, you’ll probably want to make sure it’s accredited. Accreditation means that a diploma program has been evaluated based on the standards of a particular field – in your case, medical assisting. Some medical assisting certifications even require candidates to graduate from an accredited program. [i] If you’re interested in becoming certified, you may also want to find out the percentage of graduates from your prospective program who have passed certification exams. Finally, make sure the diploma program you choose feels like a good fit for you based on average class size, student-to-instructor ratio, and graduation rates. Whether you want to earn your diploma online or on campus, you should feel comfortable with the program and excited to get started!

[a] nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013157.pdf  |  [i] onetonline.org/link/summary/31-9092.00 | [ii] bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm | [iii] credentialingexcellence.org/p/cm/ld/fid=81 | [iv] aama-ntl.org/medical-assisting/caahep-abhes-programs

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