According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical assistants (MAs) and medical assisting careers are expected to increase by 23% through 2024, growing at a much faster rate than the national average for all fields. Online medical assistant programs can train MAs to perform both clinical and administrative tasks in a variety of healthcare environments. Though largely dependent upon the location and specialty of the practice, responsibilities and duties of medical assistants may include: measuring vital signs, assisting with examinations, giving injections, and overseeing administrative tasks.
Employment in this field typically requires either a certificate or associate’s degree in medical assisting from an accredited institution. Today, a variety of online medical assistant programs are available, meeting the needs of many working adults and heads of households across the U.S. MAs are not required to be certified in most states, but optional certification can improve marketability across the board. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) offers a Certified MA credential, and the American Medical Technologists offers a Registered Medical Assistant Credential for those who pass the required examination. Median annual pay for this profession is $31,540 for full-time employees. The top 10 percent of MAs earned $45,310 per year, and the lowest 10 percent earned $22,870.
What Are The Best Online Medical Assistant Programs?
What Degree do I Need to Be a Medical Assistant?
Medical assistants are vital and versatile members of healthcare teams. Trained to perform both administrative and clinical duties, they serve in paraprofessional support roles in clinics, hospitals, and assisted living facilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for medical assistants will increase 23% through 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.
Although it’s possible to enter the field with a high school diploma and acquire skills on the job, most medical assistants earn a one-year certificate or diploma. Employers often prefer to hire medical assistants with some postsecondary education. Earning an associate degree through an online medical assistant program distinguishes graduates from other candidates, positions them to compete for top positions, and provides experience that prepares them to pursue nursing careers.
The best online medical assistant programs offer externships and provide support and preparation for voluntary certification exams. Some programs even offer specializations in administrative or clinical work. Certifications are not legally required, but employers favor candidates with extra credentials. Most medical assistant certifications are interchangeable and designate the holder’s qualifications to perform entry-level work as a medical assistant. Externship providers maintain close relationships with educational institutions, and many offer jobs to graduates.
Types of Medical Assistant Programs
Medical assistant diploma
Medical assistant certificate
Associate degree in medical assistant
What Will I Learn in an Online Medical Assistant Program?
All medical assistant programs have laboratory and classroom components, which provide a foundation in medical terminology and human anatomy. A typical online medical assistant program also includes coursework in administrative procedures, clinical processes, medical ethics and law, pharmacology, and medical communications. Most online medical assistant programs require a supervised externship, which typically involves 160 to 200 hours of training at a clinic or a physician’s office.
Students completing a medical assistant programs online learn administrative skills, including appointment scheduling, records management, and basic computer skills, such as word processing, database management, and insurance coding. Clinical skills training varies by state, but most programs teach students to take patient histories and vital signs, collect laboratory specimens, and explain treatment procedures. Graduates of medical assistant online programs work in physicians’ offices, insurance companies, and hospitals.
- Medical law and ethics
This course introduces students to the legal relationships between patients and physicians and the impact of law on paraprofessional practice. Topics include legal terminology, death, malpractice, informed consent, bioethical issues, and professionalism.
- Identification of legal risks
- Application of ethical standards to medical paraprofessional practice
- Clinical procedures
This course covers practical topics relevant to performing clinical exam room procedures, such as taking vital signs, EKG, patient education, infection control, asepsis, preparation and administration of medications, treatment assistance, and medical emergencies.
- Pulmonary function tests
- Wound care
- Laboratory procedures
Students learn basic lab techniques. Topics include infection control, blood collection, quality control, collecting and preparing specimens for analysis, screening tests, phlebotomy, selective testing, and lab safety and regulations.
- Proper handling of specimens
- Blood collection
- Anatomy and physiology
This course provides an introduction to cells, tissues, and organs. Students study fundamental bodily functions, structures, and systems.
- Proper use of medical terminology
- Identification of bodily systems
- Medical insurance billing and coding procedures
Students learn to apply insurance billing procedures, including claim form completion and tracking of information. The course covers basic insurance terminology and surveys plans including Blue Cross, Medicare, Medicaid, and HMOs.
- Insurance coding
- Completing insurance claims
Professional Credentialing Options
For graduates of an online medical assistant program, earning professional certification in combination with a diploma, certificate, or undergraduate degree may be all that is required to begin a career in medical assisting. While most jobs do not require an advanced degree in the field, the majority of employers prefer, and may even insist, that candidates are certified in a specialization of their choice. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies, part of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, offers five accredited certifications for medical assistants, including the following:
- Certified Medical Assistant: The CMA is nationally recognized, voluntary, and available only to graduates of accredited programs. Certificate holders qualify for entry-level employment.
- Registered Medical Assistant: Equivalent to the CMA, the RMA is a nationally recognized, voluntary credential acknowledging qualifications to perform medical assistant duties. It is available only to graduates of accredited programs or those with five years of work experience.
- National Certified Medical Assistant: The NCMA is a nationally recognized, voluntary credential awarded to graduates of approved programs who complete an exam and 14 annual hours of continuing education. Certificate holders qualify for entry-level employment.
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant: Offered through the National Healthcareer Association, the CCMA is a voluntary specialty credential focused on clinical patient care, rather than clerical tasks. The CCMA designates a professional is qualified for entry-level employment in clinical roles.
- Certified Medical Administrative Assistant: Offered through the National Healthcareer Association, the CMAA is a voluntary specialty credential demonstrating proficiency in front office and secretarial tasks. The certification acknowledges qualifications for entry-level employment in administrative roles.
Careers in Medical Assisting
Completing a medical assistant program online prepares graduates for both clinical and administrative duties in hospitals, clinics, and healthcare facilities. In fact, this unique combination of skills is at the core of most entry-level careers in the field. For graduates of an online medical assistant program working in a physician’s office, daily tasks might include recording patient histories, taking vital signs, scheduling patient appointments, preparing blood samples for lab tests, and more. While medical assistants are trained to work under the supervision of a physician or medical professional, their job is simply to assist, not replace, a physician’s care. In some work environments, such as a large hospital or healthcare facility, medical assistants may choose to specialize in either administrative or clinical duties, though students who have completed a medical assistant program online are typically prepared for both aspects of this career.
Salary Expectations for Medical Assistants
While factors such as local market conditions, specific job titles, and employer size influence salaries for graduates of online medical assistant programs, the primary salary determinant is professional experience. Medical assistants earn a median annual salary of $34,770 during their first five years on the job, and after 20 years, they earn $47,983. The table below shows median salary expectations by experience level.
Opportunities for Advancement as a Medical Assistant
After completing an online medical assistant program and certification, many graduates want to become more involved in patient care. Pursuing education beyond an accredited medical assistant program can open paths to higher paying jobs. The table below features median salaries for four nursing careers.
There are no formal accelerated medical assistant online programs that shorten completion time of the registered nurse credential. However, the patient care experience and knowledge of medical terminology gained through a medical assistant program provides an advantage in nursing programs.
Licensure from a state board of nursing requires a nursing degree and the national council licensure examination for registered nurses. Aspiring nurses can earn a diploma in nursing, an associate degree in nursing, or a bachelor’s of science in nursing, which leads to advanced careers in nursing management. Post-graduate work can open nurse practitioner career opportunities.
What’s the Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Physician Assistant?
While often mistaken as the same occupation, medical assistants and physician assistants perform unique and different tasks on the job. Medical assistants are responsible for performing administrative duties and preparing patients for doctor appointments, though they themselves are not authorized to provide direct medical care to patients. Medical assistants are typically more involved than physician’s assistants in patient scheduling, patient records, appointment setting, taking vital signs and collecting blood work, among other administrative tasks.
By contrast, physician’s assistants are more involved in collaborating with physicians about clinical patient care. A physician’s assistant may support their supervising practitioner in surgery, during therapeutic procedures, in the x-ray room, and during primary care visits. Physician’s assistants may also collaborate with the physician to provide patient direction and patient/family education, as well as develop treatment plans and set courses of treatment.
To determine the best online Medical Assistant programs, we looked at the most important factors prospective students, mainly common predictors of future success and a school’s commitment to online programs. This boils down to admissions rate, student loan default rate, retention rate, graduation rate, and the percent of students enrolled in online classes. All data points are taken from information provided by colleges and universities to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Each factor is weighted evenly in order to give an objective view and determine the 5 best online Medical Assistant programs. To calculate our rankings, we looked at a school’s ranking when organized by a single factor, and then averaged each category’s ranking to find an overall score: Admissions Rate (20%) + Default Rate (20%) + Retention Rate (20%) + Graduation Rate (20%) + Percent of Students Enrolled in Online Classes (20%) = Final score.