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To a great degree, where you attend a medical assistant program will depend upon where you live – or where you want to live – while you’re in school.
Within that parameter, however, you will probably have several different choices open to you. You will find the most important criteria for investigating these choices, and selecting among them, below.
The first thing you should find out about the MA program that you’re thinking of applying to is whether or not that program is accredited. If it’s accredited, what organization supplies that accreditation?
Accreditation is important if you plan to seek certification once your training is complete. Certification is not a legal requirement of medical assisting, and some employers will hire you without this credential.
It does increase your employment options, however, since it is an objective evaluation of your knowledge base.
More employers will be interested in you if you are certified, and your employers are likely to trust you to perform more sophisticated tasks.
Only graduates of MA programs that have been accredited by CAAHEP or ABHES are eligible to sit for the CMA exam issued by the American Association of Medical Assistants.
Three other types of certification are available to students who don’t graduate from CAAHEP or ABHES schools, however. These are:
- Registered Medical Assistant (RMA), offered by the American Medical Technologists (AMT)
- National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA), offered by the National Center for Competency Testing
- Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA), offered by the National Healthcareer Association
CAAHEP and ABHES only accredit those programs that are affiliated with institutions that hold an institutional accreditation from either USDE or CHEA.
You can check their websites to see whether the medical assistant school you’re considering to enroll in is accredited by one of these bodies.
Or you can use our search form to find an ABHES/CAAHEP accredited MA program near you.
Be aware not every accreditation carries weight. There are organizations that style themselves as accrediting bodies, although they have no authority from either the government or from established academic authorities to do so.
These organizations are popularly referred to as “accreditation mills.” Their accreditation is not worth anything. Steer away from any courses that has pursued accreditation through an accreditation mill.
Costs are one of the most important criteria for choosing a medical assistant course. Costs will include tuition, books and school supplies, such as scrubs and stethoscopes, and living expenses, such as room and board.
While you may be able to work while you’re completing the classroom portion of the course, working will be difficult while you’re pursuing your practicum or externship since practicums are scheduled during working hours.
Vocational schools: Vocational training schools tend to offer the least expensive medical assistant training. Typically, the length of training varies from between a few weeks to a year
Some technical schools include the costs of books and supplies in their tuition fees, but most do not. Make a point of asking.
Vocational schools frequently sponsor enrollment drives during which they reduce tuition significantly, sometimes by as much as half.
Junior and community colleges: The cost of medical assistant programs at junior or community colleges varies widely from state to state.
Although you are confident that you want to pursue your medical assisting education, remember that things can happen.
Two weeks into the program, you may discover that it is not what you want, or some life event may occur that necessitates dropping out of school. Find out what the institution’s refund policy is before you write that tuition check.
Once you have applied and been accepted into a school, you will be presented with an enrollment agreement. You are not officially a student enrolled in this program until you sign this agreement.
Be sure you read this carefully before you sign the agreement. It is a legally binding contract, which means if you sign it and change your mind about attending the school, you are still responsible for paying the tuition and fulfilling the other obligations outlined in the agreement.
The enrollment agreement should contain information about cancellation policies. If it doesn’t, make sure you call the school and speak with someone who can explain those policies to you. Be sure to document this phone call.
All professional medical assistant schools have financial aid coordinators. Make an appointment to speak with one early in your application process. They will be able to tell you what types of scholarships, grants and loans are available to you.
The Federal government is the largest source of financial aid. Make sure the school you’re interested in applying to accepts this aid, and then fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
While this source of aid is primarily available to college students (including students of junior and community colleges), they are sometimes available to vocational school applicants.
FAFSA will determine your eligibility for Pell Grants, which are awarded on the basis of financial need. The Federal government also awards subsidized Stafford loans, based on financial need, at an interest rate of 3.4 percent and unsubsidized Stafford loans at an interest rate of 6.8 percent.
For more information about Federal financial aid programs, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4 FED AID (1- 800-433-3243).
The Perkins Federal Loan Program makes funds available to schools, which then make these funds available to students.
The interest rate on Perkins Federal Loans is five percent per year. Many medical assistant schools also offer scholarships as part of their financial aid package.
Student satisfaction and reputation
Two measures of a school’s success at teaching are its retention and graduation rates. Retention rate refers to the number of students who begin a program and continue with that program, while graduation rate refers to the number of students that actually goes on to graduate.
High retention and graduation rates indicate that many students find the program worthwhile.
Another measurement of the school’s success will be its job placement rate. Job placement rate refers to the number of graduates that go on to find jobs in a reasonable amount of time after graduation.
Institutional job placement rates are only relevant if graduates find jobs within the sector for which they trained. Make sure to ask the school specifically what percentage of its graduates actually finds jobs as medical assistants within the health care industry.
Many medical assisting programs will make retention, graduation and placement information available to you as part of their online or catalogue description.
If the medical assisting school you’re interested in attending does not, call the administrator in charge of admissions and ask about retention, graduation and job placement rates directly.
If these numbers are low, chances are there’s a reason for it. You may need to rethink your application.
Another way to check student satisfaction is by checking to see whether specific complaints have been filed against the program or the school with the Better Business Bureau, the Department of Education or an accrediting organization.
Admission requirements vary depending upon whether you want to pursue a one or two-year program at a community college. They also vary from school to school. Minimum requirements for most MA classes include:
- You must be at least 18 years old. Some MA schools do allow you to enroll at age 17, however.
- You must have a high school diploma or a GED.
- You must be able to pass a criminal background check.
- If the institution itself has eligibility requirements, you must be able to satisfy those.
Some schools require a health check and a physician’s note testifying that you are strong enough to work as a medical assistant. In some situations, it can be a physically demanding job!
Most schools will also require an interview with the administrator responsible for admissions into the program.
Students with previous college credits who wish to enroll in a junior or community college level medical assisting program may want to know whether previous college credits are transferable.
Except for general education credits, most credits will not be transferable to your medical assisting courses.
Practicums, internships and externships
All reputable medical assisting programs include a supervised, unpaid work experience in an ambulatory health care setting as part of the training. Health care settings can include hospitals, clinics or physicians’ offices.
Practicums take place during normal working hours between 8 A.M. and 6 P.M. No evening or weekend practicums are offered. Externships can lead to job offers, so make the most of them both as learning and networking opportunities.
Both the American Association of Medical Assistants and the American Medical Technologists require medical assistants to complete an externship during training before they can become eligible for certification.
The length of medical assistant training programs varies according to the type of training you’re pursuing.
Diploma programs can vary anywhere from a few weeks to an entire year, depending upon the institution where the course is being given.
If you did well in high school science classes or have some previous experience in a health care setting, you may do well with a shorter training course.
If the medical assistant classes offered in your area are too long to suit your needs, check the list above to pinpoint short-term medical assisting training programs.
If medical assisting curriculum and practical skills are entirely new to you, however, you’d be well advised to enroll in a longer program that will give you more time to assimilate your new training.
Junior and community colleges that offer associate’s degrees generally take two years to complete. There are two types of associate’s degrees.
An AAS degree (Associate in Applied Science) focuses on preparing you to find a job as soon as you finish your training.
An AS degree (Associate of Science), on the other hand, is a degree for someone who thinks he or she may want to pursue education at a four-year college at some point.
Job placement service
Some schools provide job placement services that give their graduates an edge in career planning and job-hunting. These services can be very helpful, particularly if they instruct graduates in resume writing and interviewing skills.
The career placement professional at your school will have developed relationships with local hospitals, clinics and local physicians’ offices that hire new graduates.
Often, these are the same facilities that make externships available to students. Indeed, it’s always wise to consider your externship as an audition for a paid position.
When you are placed successfully in one of these positions, you are being hired as much on the basis of your school’s reputation as your own merits.
These health care facilities are a far more highly networked pool of employers than those who advertise in local newspapers and on Internet job sites for new employees.
They want to employ the very best graduates your school has to offer. Recruiters from these facilities may visit your school, either to meet directly with school administrators or to arrange presentations for students.
Visiting the medical assistant school
Your final decision should be based upon the impressions you have when visiting the school itself.
- Look at the facility and its equipment.
- Is it new and up to date?
- Are computer lab facilities available for students?
- Does the school make tutoring or online distance learning options available for students?
- What provisions are available for students to make up classes they are forced to miss?
If possible, try to speak with some of the students who are currently enrolled. Are they satisfied with the program? What do they think are the program’s strongest and weakest points?
Speak with faculty members as well if you can, and take some time to review their credentials.
This list may seem exhaustive, but keep in mind that you will be devoting a considerable amount of money and energy to training as a medical assistant.
By following this guide, you will make sure that you choose a medical assistant program that’s right for you.
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