How to Choose a Medical Assistant Program
If you’re here, you’re probably interested in becoming a medical assistant. Maybe you’ve heard about the steady demand for certified medical assistants, and how that demand is expected to grow over the coming years; or maybe you’ve noticed the high number of job openings for medical assistants in hospitals and clinics around the country.
How to Choose a Medical Assistant Program
Becoming a medical assistant takes less time than you might expect. By law, all you really need is a high school diploma or GED. Your chances of getting hired are much higher, though, if you’ve earned a certification by taking an exam – and in order to take an exam (and be prepared for the questions on it), you’ll need to graduate from a one-year or two-year training program.
Many colleges and universities around the country offer these programs, and they’re also available online; both from brick-and-mortar institutions and from Internet-based schools. These programs typically take between nine months and two years to complete, and the entire program costs less than half as much as a four-year degree would.
Which type of school is better: online or brick-and-mortar?
As long as you’ve already got your high school diploma or GED – which is required in order to enter a program – your biggest decision is whether to pick a brick-and-mortar school or take your classes online. This may not be an all-or-nothing choice, as many schools now offer at least some of their classes online – but it’s still an important question to settle.
A brick-and-mortar school will give you more opportunities to interact directly with your classmates and teachers. This real-world interaction can help keep you motivated to show up for class, complete your assignments, and finish the program – and it’ll also make it easier to get your questions answered on the spot. In online classes, on the other hand, your interactions with teachers and students will happen in forums and chats, which can make it tricker to build up a support network.
Although most brick-and-mortar schools offer classes during the day and evening, you’ll need to show up on time, and stay for the entire class, if you expect to pass the tests and graduate. Since you can take online classes anywhere you’ve got an Internet connection, at any time of the day or night, they can be much easier to fit into your schedule, especially if you’re already working full-time. Some online schools may even allow you to start taking classes as soon as you want, rather than making you pre-register and wait for the next semester to start.
What’s most important to look for in a school?
Accreditation is the single most important factor to make sure of in any school. Only schools that are officially accredited by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) can be trusted to provide you with the training necessary to pass your exam and earn your medical assistant certification. This is easy to check – just contact the school and ask them to show you their accreditation information. If they don’t have it, they aren’t worth your time.
The qualifications of your teachers will also make a major difference in their ability to prepare you for your exam and career – so check up on the professors who teach each class, and make sure they’re properly trained to teach the subjects they’re teaching. Simply searching Google for their names and credentials can tell you whether they actually are who they claim to be. And If you want to be sure that a certain professor is a board-certified physician, just run a search for his or her name on CertificationMatters.com, the official certification database of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS).
What other factors are worth considering?
Once you’re sure that a school is accredited and that its teachers are properly certified, you’ll also want to check out reviews of the program. These can give you a better idea of how the course material is presented, how heavy the course loads are, how coursework is evaluated and graded, how the students and teachers interact, what kinds of study groups and informational resources are available for students, and what kind of reputation the school has overall.
According to our survey of 100 online job listings, almost all employers require all medical assistants they hire to have some hands-on experience, as well as a working familiarity with medical work and equipment. The good news is that employers are usually willing to count hands-on education toward this experience. That means it’s crucial to choose a school that offers a lab on campus, where you’ll perform basic tests and procedures with other students. Also, look for a program that provides internships at local hospitals and clinics. These will make your resume more impressive, and can even lead to higher-paying jobs.
If you’re considering an online program, pay special attention to how the coursework is presented. Many online programs offer video lectures, and the quality of these lectures makes a major difference in how much you learn from them. If possible, ask the school for a sample lecture, and watch it to see if it fits your learning style. Ideally, the school should also offer some notes to accompany each lecture, or at least an outline of the lecture’s main points. If you’re considering a brick-and-mortar program, ask to sit in on a class for one day. A well-taught class should include plenty of interaction between the teacher and students – including clear answers to any questions – and specific examples that demonstrate each concept in the lecture.
Some medical assistant programs are tougher than others – and you may actually want to take on a tougher one in order to be better prepared for your exam and career. Whatever your preference, it’ll be helpful to know how heavy the course loads are, and how coursework is graded. Ask the school for an example of a course syllabus, so you’ll have some idea of how much reading is required, how many quizzes and tests there’ll be, and how each quiz and test contributes to your final grade.
Interaction with other students, and with your teachers, is also an important consideration – especially in online schools, where you won’t have the ability to meet these people face-to-face. Study groups can make or break your ability to pass tests – especially your certification exam – and real-world support from your peers can make all the difference in your long-term determination to complete the program. Even if you’re not a social butterfly, it’s preferable to enter a program that gives you plenty of opportunities to discuss your coursework; and whose teachers respond quickly to emails, who make time for meetings with students, and who offer tips and guidance to students who ask.
A brick-and-mortar school is also more likely to offer library facilities, where you’ll have access to loads of informational resources – not to mention a quiet place to study. Online schools may also offer digital libraries, but the size and organization of these libraries depends on the school. As you advance in your studies, you’ll find that you need the library more and more – so make sure the school offers at least a basic resource for looking up medical texts.