Medical Assistant Certificate vs. Diploma Programs: How They Differ

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Medical Assistant Certificate or Diploma Programs

Obtaining the medical assistant diploma or certificate is one of the mandatory educational requirements to become a medical assistant in some states of the USA. The diploma programs are generally offered by traditional colleges, community colleges, and vocational schools. Those who want to enter the healthcare field at the earliest can consider pursuing a certificate or diploma in medical assisting. After completion of the program, students can become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) by qualifying for the CMA exam conducted by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).

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What is a Medical Assistant Certificate?

A medical assistant certificate is the shortest educational program that enables you to get entry-level jobs sooner. However, if you want to climb your career ladder, you can go for an associate’s degree after earning the certification.

What is a Medical Assistant Diploma?

If you have made your mind to pursue your career in the field of medicine, a medical assistant diploma will be a stepping stone for a successful career in this stream.

A diploma in medical assistant is a testimony to your skills in clinical and administrative procedures, which establishes that you can efficiently render your duties as a medical assistant in any healthcare facility. Moreover, you can increase your employability in the job market by obtaining the diploma.

How Long does it Take to Complete a Medical Assistant Diploma/Certificate?

Certificate programs are of short duration and more focused. You can earn certification in 6 to 9 months.

Diploma programs, on the other hand, are a bit longer than certificate programs. Typically, it takes about 9 months to one year to achieve the diploma. However, the duration may vary based on the college you choose and the state where you reside.

How Much does Certificate/Diploma Programs Cost?

The cost of certificate/diploma programs varies in different colleges and depends on various factors such as the length of externship, number of classes included, etc. The tuition cost may range from $5,000 to $15,000. Some programs cost between $100 and $150 per credit.  In addition, you will have to pay for books, accommodation, supplies, and exam fees.

Education Requirements 

Aspirants must complete the following educational requirements to become a medical assistant:

  • Earn graduation from a post-secondary education program.
  • Complete certificate, diploma, or degree in medical assisting from an accredited institute. However, no formal education is required for medical assistants in some states of the USA.
  • Some states require students to take the CMA (Certified Medical Assistants) examination conducted by the American Association of Medical Assistants.
  • Renew your certification after every 5 years.

What will You Learn in a Medical Assistant Certificate Program?

The certificate program includes classroom lectures as well as clinical sessions to provide hands-on practice to the aspirants. Moreover, you are supposed to complete an externship under the supervision of an experienced medical professional.

You will study the following subjects:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Medical Reception
  • Infection Control
  • Medical Records
  • Patient Care
  • Medical Office Management, and so on

What Will You Learn in a Medical Assistant Diploma?

Like certificate programs, diploma programs also focus on instilling clinical and administrative skills in students. Most of the curriculum is the same as the certificate program, but the topics are taught in detail.

The program covers the following major courses:

  • Pharmacology
  • Medical Coding
  • Biology
  • Medical Law and Ethics
  • Computer Applications
  • Medical Terminology
  • Phlebotomy
  • Sterile Techniques, and many more

Can you do a Medical Assistant Diploma/Certification Online? 

Yes, aspirants can pursue online medical assistant diploma/certification. Several colleges and universities such as Liberty University, Herzing University, and Keiser University offer online medical assistant courses.

One key point to keep in mind before enrolling in online programs is that you can complete only the theoretical part online. For completing hands-on training clinical session, you will have to undergo a supervised on-site training at an approved healthcare facility.

Difference Between a Medical Assistant Certificate and Diploma Program

Below are the significant differences between the two educational pathways to the medical assistant certificate and diploma.

Parameters Certificate Diploma
Duration 6-9 months 9 months – 1 year
Course Human anatomy and physiology, administrative procedures, medical terminology, pharmacology, etc. Physiology and pathology, first aid, office practices, medication administration, etc. Most courses are similar to the certificate program but are covered in detail.
Clinical Experience (depends on the college you choose) 160-hour externship required 180 to 200 hours of clinical experience required
Employability Students with a Certificate in medical assisting can go for a Degree to have better job prospects and salary. Students with a diploma can get an entry-level job in the clinical and administrative capacity.

Specialty Certifications in Medical Assisting

Medical assistants who want to gain expertise in highly specialized areas such as medical care of feet, eyes, etc. can earn specialty certification.

1. Podiatric Medical Assistant, Certified (PMAC)

This certification is offered by the American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants (ASPMA). Medical assistants possessing this certification work closely with foot doctors (podiatrists) and assist them in administering apt treatment to patients.

2. Certified Paraoptometric Assistant (CPOA)

This certification is offered by the American Optometric Association to those students who fulfill any of the following requirements:

  • have completed graduation from an accredited optometric assistant program,
  • possess at least 6 months of working experience as a CPO, or
  • have 5 or 5+ years of experience in delivering eye care to patients.

These medical assistants assist eye doctors, and measure the vision of the patients, help them with contact lenses and eyeglasses, and much more.

3. Certified Paraoptometric (CPO)

This certification is also offered by the American Optometric Association to those students who meet the following eligibility criteria:

  • possess a high school diploma or equivalent,
  • have at least 6 months of experience in delivering eye care to patients

These medical assistants generally perform administrative duties in eye care clinics.

How to Pick the Right Certification/Diploma Program?

Aspirants have options to choose from the following 5 certifications:

Selecting the right diploma or certification program when you have many choices is undoubtedly a daunting task. We have listed a few major points here, which will help you make the informed decision. Take a look!

  1. Practical Aspects

    Compare various practical aspects such as cost, distance, and test-taking procedures of different certification programs to find the one that best fits your goals. Also, look at the percentage of students who have successfully graduated from the program in which you are planning to enroll.

  2. The Requirements Specified By Your State

    Some states require students to possess some specific medical assistant certification. So, if you want to work in a particular state, check its requirements thoroughly.

  3. Accreditation

    If you want to pursue a certification that has been around longer and is widely preferred by students, you can choose RMA and CMA. On the other hand, the diploma program must meet the established educational standards. It must be accredited by an authorized entity such as the ABHES or CAAHEP.

  4. Employer Outlook

    Research the current job trends and which courses are preferred by employers. Different employers have different eligibility criteria to hire a medical assistant.

  5. The Focus of Certification/Diploma

    Determine in which area you want to attain expertise – administrative or clinical. If you want to be an administrative medical assistant, CMAA is the right option for you. But, if you want to become a clinical medical assistant, you can opt for CCMA. For diploma, find a program that fits with your personal life and job commitments.

Search Medical Assistant Programs

Get information on Medical Assistant programs by entering your zip code and request enrollment information.

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Written by : Casey Gardner

Casey Gardner is both a healthcare support professional and an accomplished content creator.  She has been working as a certified health care professional with marketable skills as a physician assistant,  and a qualified medical assistant for last two decades. She has dedicated her nursing career to produce over hundreds of content pieces since 2001, and her work has been published both online as well as offline.


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