What to Look for in a Medical Assistant Program: 9 Essential Questions to Ask
To become a medical assistant, you’ll first need to complete a formal training program. But which program should you choose? In the following, we’ll help you answer that question by covering what to look for in a medical assistant program.
The demand for medical assistants is extremely high. They’re crucial healthcare professionals who perform a wide range of duties at clinics, medical offices, and other healthcare facilities.
How well a program prepares you for those duties will depend a lot on your learning experience. Let’s take a close look at the questions you should be asking as you consider programs in medical assisting.
1. Does the program offer more than one option for formal training?
There is more than one path to obtaining the appropriate credentials for being a medical assistant. Two common options are the diploma and the associate degree.
These differ in the amount of credits they require and in how long they take to complete. This could be important if you’re especially interested in entering the job market more quickly and minimizing the amount of money you initially spend on the necessary training.
Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU), for example, offers two programs for medical assistant students:
Program No. 1: The Medical Assisting diploma
This option takes about one year, or three trimesters, and prepares you to sit for the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) exam from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
With this route, it’s possible for you to begin working as a medical assistant in a year.
Program No. 2: The Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree
The A.A.S. degree takes five trimesters, which equates to 20 months.
If you want to pursue further education in the future or are interested in specialization or career advancement, the A.A.S. can be an important stepping stone.
Special note on pursuing the A.A.S. while working as a medical assistant. Some NWHSU students opt to complete the diploma program, secure full-time employment and begin working, and then gradually complete the A.A.S. degree by taking courses online.
Regardless of the path you choose, your actual completion time will be longer if you take courses on a part-time basis. On the other hand, it can take you less time if you have credits that transfer.
2. How flexible is the program so you can still meet other obligations in your life?
While enrolled in a medical assistant program, you may have additional obligations to your family and your current employment. That means you may need greater flexibility in terms of how and when you complete your coursework.
Find out if the program has a fixed, pre-set schedule
How busy—and complicated—is your schedule? It can be more challenging to be a successful student when a program has a fixed schedule that does not take into account the specific scheduling conflicts of its students.
Before you enroll in a program, be sure to confirm that the course offerings will work with your schedule.
Ask how the courses are offered
Programs vary in how they offer courses. For instance, NWHSU offers a hybrid approach.
That means you attend certain classes online at a specified time, complete others online on your own time, and also attend specific classes, such as hands-on labs, on campus. (Note that students typically only need to be on campus once or twice a week.)
NWHSU’s course schedule for the Medical Assisting program typically varies because we base it largely on the needs of our students from one trimester to the next.
3. How hands-on is the program?
The roles of a medical assistant make it a very hands-on profession in which you may be expected to carry out a variety of clinical tasks such as drawing blood, administering injections, and performing basic lab duties.
Some programs leave the clinical training for the internship, which is the final phase of your medical assistant education. That means you’ll be in an actual clinical setting as you learn how to do clinical tasks like those just mentioned.
Be aware that this program approach not only puts the burden on clinic staff to train you but can also create a more stressful clinical experience for you.
That’s why many medical assistant students find it extremely valuable to have hands-on training prior to their internship. In fact, NWHSU places an emphasis on the importance of hands-on learning by providing:
On-campus lab courses. Labs play an integral role in your medical assistant education at NWHSU. These are hands-on settings in which you can practice a variety of clinical skills under the supervision of helpful instructors.
In fact, when you’re on campus, we make the most of your time. Labs are limited to six students, which make it much easier for those instructors to provide individualized instruction.
Two on-campus clinics. NWHSU is the only medical assisting program in Minnesota with on-site clinics. Students begin observing in actual clinic settings during their first trimester. Eventually, they can practice clinical skills like measuring vital signs in a real-life setting under the supervision of NWHSU clinic staff.
At our on-site clinics, students also gain firsthand experience with administrative duties such as scheduling, medical coding, and documenting patient information in electronic healthcare records.
Accessible faculty for extra attention. NWHSU’s Medical Assisting faculty make a concerted effort to be available for extra help. We understand that by practicing hands-on skills repeatedly and having faculty check your progress, you’ll likely be more confident during your clinical internship—and ultimately more effective as a professional.
4. What are the campus and the faculty like?
You’re investing in your future when you enroll in a medical assisting program. So, it’s well worth your time to seize the opportunities you have to better understand the program you’re considering. Does it provide convenient ways for you to do that?
NWHSU puts on multiple admissions events a year for prospective students, in addition to virtual events. You can also schedule a campus tour, in person or virtually, and set up phone call appointments to talk to an admission counselor and a current student.
Faculty from NWHSU’s Medical Assisting program actually encourage you to meet with them one-on-one so they can answer your questions, address concerns like scheduling conflicts, and better understand your goals for the future.
5. How are you placed for your internship?
The internship, or practicum, portion of your medical assistant program comes after you complete your regular coursework and is typically the final phase of your education. It involves carrying out medical assistant tasks and responsibilities at an assigned clinic.
Be sure you enquire how a given program places its medical assistant students in internships. Some may put the burden on you to find internship opportunities, while others are just the opposite.
For example, NWHSU handles the entire internship placement process. We have strong relationships established with Twin Cities Metro Area clinics that provide students valuable clinical experiences.
6. Is the medical assistant program accredited?
Medical assistants are sometimes referred to as CMAs—the C standing for “certified.” Most employers prefer or even require medical assistants to be certified. To do that, you must pass the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) certification exam.
Before you can sit for the AAMA exam, you must complete a medical assistant program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, a big reason why you want to choose a program that’s accredited.
At NWHSU, for instance, the Medical Assisting diploma program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs upon the recommendation of the Medical Assisting Education Review Board.
7. What is the program’s job placement rate?
As you consider a variety of factors in choosing a medical assistant program, you should also ask about the program’s job placement rate. How many graduates of the program have found a job soon after program completion?
NWHSU’s job placement rate is 100%, and our graduates work at a variety of clinics and other healthcare facilities throughout the Twin Cities and beyond.
8. What student services are offered?
Keep in mind that being a student involves more than completing assignments and attending classes. What kind of student services does the school you’re looking at offer? These can be more valuable than you initially think.
At NWHSU, for example, the Office of Student Affairs offers a wide range of programs and services that not only enhance your student experience but also help you prepare for your career. Here are highlights:
Career Services. Students can, for example, receive one-on-one career counseling; check out career fairs; attend workshops to prepare for job interviews; and search for job opportunities more efficiently with the members-only job platform Handshake.
Counseling Center. Students have access to no-cost mental health counseling, both on campus and online.
Fitness Center. Open seven days a week, the Fitness Center is free to students and provides a range of strength and cardio equipment.
9. How much will the program cost?
A program in medical assisting should clearly lay out its fees.
You also want to make sure you incorporate financial concerns into your search early on. The best place to start is with a school’s financial aid specialists and don’t forget to research both school-sponsored scholarships and external scholarships.
Finally, don’t simply look for the lowest cost. Remember that the value you gain from attending a given program will depend a lot on how well it prepares you to be a successful medical assistant.
The best medical assistant programs provide extensive hands-on learning opportunities—as well as easily accessible faculty and staff who can offer guidance, academic support, and even emotional support.