Complete Guide to Healthcare Degrees
Thanks to a modern, integrated understanding of health and wellness, healthcare professions include everything from medical massage therapists and registered nurses to x-ray technicians. Online healthcare degrees are available at just about every educational level, with accredited schools offering associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, as well as a variety of certificates. Many online degrees equip students with the skills to work directly with patients in service capacities, such as nursing, diagnostic medical imaging, and cardiovascular technology. Other programs cover management principles for medical technology, medical records, or other administrative areas.
Accreditation is an important aspect to keep in mind when researching healthcare schools, since many healthcare professions are highly regulated. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) is one of the largest accrediting bodies for health programs, covering such disciplines as anesthesia technology and personal fitness training, among others. Read More
Featured List of Colleges & Universities for an Online Healthcare Degree
Overview of Available Online Healthcare Degrees
Undergraduate certificates and associate degrees are the initial education requirement for many health professions. Certificates are available in areas like licensed practical nursing, fitness training, medical billing and coding, and medical transcription, and can prepare graduates for administrative and routine clinical roles. Online associate degrees in health are available in many medical technology areas, including sonography, x-ray technology, cardiovascular technology, and registered nursing. These degrees are available from community colleges, health organizations, and universities.
An online bachelor’s degree will include a wider breadth of general education topics, along with a deeper introduction to the healthcare field than an associate degree would provide. For example, a bachelor’s degree in diagnostic medical technology might discuss more than one diagnostic area, such as sonography, x-rays, and mammography. Bachelor’s students are also able to specialize their degree or do clinical work in a greater number of settings. Students can earn bachelor’s degrees in health administration, nursing, physical therapy, athletic training, and more.
Master’s degrees help current healthcare workers advance in their field, or they can provide an initial introduction to a particular field, such as physical therapy or occupational therapy. They may also discuss health management, leadership, or education. Online master’s degrees often have a large clinical component, where students work under clinical instructors in the field.
Healthcare doctorates are available in many areas, including nursing, occupational therapy, nutrition, and physical therapy. These degrees may be research focused, or they may concentrate on advanced clinical work. Students learn how to analyze and interpret scientific literature in the healthcare field, as well as how to apply this research or launch a novel research project. Most online doctorates in healthcare require the completion of a dissertation.
Students should ensure that the online healthcare programs they are considering will adequately prepare them for any required exams required for licensing in their field. As healthcare is often such a hands-on field, students should also investigate the professional skills and qualifications of the clinical instructors of any prospective degree programs. It also makes sense to make sure the online healthcare program you choose is recognized by your particular state board and that clinical experiences are available in your local community, if required.
An associate degree in the healthcare field can prepare graduates for a number of fast-growing careers, such as a position as a medical assistant or health information manager. These two-year programs are offered by allied health organizations, community colleges, and technical/vocational schools.
There are several different associate programs in healthcare, each with a slightly different approach. The associate in medical office administration has a curriculum that covers many aspects of health management, from record keeping to accounting. Medical assisting has a similar set of courses, except that many programs also require students to be competent in some basic areas of clinical assisting as well as administrative issues. Other associate degrees prepare students for a more narrow area of healthcare, such as medical transcription or medical billing and coding.
Despite their different focuses, most healthcare programs share a significant amount of coursework. Most students can expect to take introductory classes in medical science, medical terminology, medical software, office management, and health information systems, as well as general education classes. Other common classes teach students about the specialized types of information technology that are used in the healthcare setting. In a course on medical coding, students learn how to turn doctors’ diagnoses into three-digit codes for billing purposes. A course on electronic medical records familiarizes students with the skills necessary to handle health information on the computer.
Many healthcare associate degrees also contain an internship or externship, which allows students to practice their healthcare office skills in a real-world setting. Since the healthcare field is a sensitive one that depends heavily on workers’ competence, many employers prefer to hire job applicants with hands-on training. Some degrees require on-site training, while others don’t. Any associate degree teaching students clinical competencies will require hands-on training. Other degree programs place students in internships in their local community to provide them with valuable experience in an actual medical office.
Bachelor’s degrees in healthcare are designed to teach students the necessary skills to become managers and leaders in hospitals, physicians' offices, and other medical facilities. Graduates will be prepared for entry-level jobs in the healthcare management sector, which will be experiencing large job growth in the coming years. These degree take the standard four years to complete when pursued at the full-time level of four to five courses per semester.
Healthcare bachelor’s programs come with varying titles, with the most common being healthcare administration and healthcare management. Most of these degrees have similar academic requirements, however. They all require general education courses in the liberal arts, along with the core coursework in healthcare administration. Students will take many courses in business administration and financial planning that have been especially tailored to the healthcare setting. Topics will include the healthcare payment system, reimbursements and insurance, and budgeting techniques.
Most programs have a required course in health information, since computer technology is becoming more and more important in the medical setting. Students learn about the importance of privacy management, along with the specific software programs that are used to maintain health records. In organization and management classes, topics like healthcare facility licensing and clinical classification systems are covered, as well as the basic management techniques for healthcare facilities. A human resources class geared toward healthcare managers discusses employment law and how to recruit and retain excellent staff. Since the healthcare setting is more sensitive than the general business environment, many degree programs require an ethics in healthcare seminar as well.
While hands-on training is not required for the bachelor’s degree, gaining some real-world experience in healthcare administration can be a good idea for anyone pursuing a degree in healthcare, online or not. Many healthcare administrators have a master’s degree in the field, and bachelor’s program graduates without any hands-on experience will be at a disadvantage, even when applying for entry-level positions. Because of this, it may make sense to seek out a program that helps place students in internships or apprenticeships in the field.
While a master’s degree may not necessarily be a prerequisite for a majority of career paths in the healthcare field, such a program is designed for those who are interested in continuous professional improvement. Most master’s programs last two or three years and are designed for working professionals in the healthcare field who are seeking career advancement in managerial roles. Many programs require applicants to hold an accredited undergraduate degree in business or health administration and have a certain period of professional experience in the healthcare field. The most common master's specializations include health services administration and public health.
For a master’s degree program in healthcare administration, students will learn management concepts such as finance, marketing skills, quality control, and law and ethics. Topics in financial management include financial planning, financial math, working capital management, and capital budgeting, while marketing courses focus on marketing theory, methods, and challenges in healthcare marketing.
Students who specialize in healthcare management will learn about the importance of efficiency and ethical health management in the field. Health economics and quality management systems are among the most popular courses in this program. While health economics highlights the financial principles governing the healthcare institutions or sector, quality management systems offer students the essential knowledge of healthcare management methods.
Many of the courses are taught by examining real-world case studies, allowing students to gain a comprehensive picture of the management methods in different healthcare facilities. In addition, to catch up with the fast-growing digitized and high-tech world, some programs also offer courses in healthcare IT. An introduction to health informatics course, for example, surveys the information technology applied in today's healthcare systems. Topics include electronic health records, e-health, and human-computer interfaces.
Although most master’s in healthcare degrees are aimed for professionals who have previous experience in the field, students are expected to complete on-site training through internships or work programs. Graduates with a master's in healthcare often opt for top executive positions in local hospitals or healthcare clinics and agencies.
Doctoral programs in healthcare allow students to conduct important research in areas of healthcare philosophy, policy, and administration. These four- to five-year programs may be professional in nature and oriented toward practical healthcare issues, or they may be academic, research-oriented degrees. Students will be required to write a lengthy dissertation or complete a capstone project in order to graduate. Successful graduates may go on to lucrative careers in healthcare management or postsecondary instruction of healthcare specialties.
PhD programs exist in all areas of healthcare, from public policy in healthcare to the ethics of healthcare. Some focus on identifying ways to improve healthcare administration in general. Most programs are interdisciplinary and include elements of philosophy, statistics, business, public policy, and healthcare delivery. Nearly all PhD programs also require students to take courses in quantitative and qualitative research tools so that they may understand the techniques for structuring and evaluating a research investigation.
Within their chosen concentration, students will shape their program by choosing electives that are pertinent to their particular research question and thesis. For a research PhD aimed at philosophical and ethical questions in healthcare, for example, students might take a foundational course in moral philosophy and examine certain religious views of healthcare practices. Courses in legal ethics in healthcare are also typically required for this type of degree.
Other doctoral degree programs cover more practical applications of healthcare research, such as the PhD in health policy management. Students in this program take political science courses, such as political strategy in US health policy, along with organizational and management classes such as decision analysis in medical practices.
Certificate programs in healthcare offer students a chance to learn very important, fundamental skills within a relatively short period of time. There are many different certificate programs available that provide students with marketable skills without the time and expense of attending a four-year program. Most healthcare certificate programs take an average of six months to two years to complete. As career opportunities in the healthcare field are currently growing at a rapid pace, enrolling in a healthcare certificate program continues to be a wise investment for many people.
The many specialties that fall under the banner of "healthcare" certificates all offer opportunities for employment. Although a number of careers in healthcare require years of advanced training, some are achievable after several months to a year spent earning a professional certificate. Certificates in healthcare are available at both the undergraduate and the postgraduate levels, providing possible paths to new careers no matter how much college-level coursework a person has previously completed.
The following list describes some of the healthcare careers that can be started with a professional certificate. Each of the fields listed is one in which the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to see a rise in hiring demand through the year 2022, making these certificates viable career options. (BLS)
Health Information Technician: Medical Billing, Coding, and Transcription Specialist
Certificate programs for medical billing, coding, and transcription fall under the rubric of health information technology. These certificates are a great option for students who are interested in working in the healthcare field in an administrative rather than clinical role. The length of certificate programs in these fields varies, requiring on average one to three semesters of study. They generally involve coursework in medical terminology and computer literacy. Unlike certificate programs in clinical work, however, they are certificate programs with options for study online or in person.
Medical transcriptionists create records for healthcare professionals, taking notes and formulating documents while the healthcare professional dictates information. Coding specialists use special software to record patient information for research and diagnostic purposes as well as for billing reasons. Billing professionals focus on claims and payment, from the time a patient's information is filed away on record to the time payment for a service is received.
Medical assistants are similar to nursing assistants in that they perform many of the basic tasks needed to keep a healthcare office running smoothly. Their duties are more varied than those of nursing assistants, however; they are just as likely to be assigned clerical tasks, such as scheduling appointments and submitting insurance forms, as they are to be assigned clinical tasks, such as recording patients' basic vital signs and drawing blood.
Though a professional certificate isn't a legal requirement for obtaining work as a medical assistant, it is a qualification that employers desire. Certificate programs in this field include coursework in such topics as clinical procedures, legal and ethical issues, and medical software, all topics that medical assistants are expected to be very familiar with. Because the range of responsibilities of a medical assistant is so great, a student can expect to take approximately one year to complete a certificate program.
A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) is an integral member of a healthcare work group. CNAs are often assigned essential functions of patient care, including bathing and feeding patients and monitoring patients' vital signs. Because they are so often in direct contact with patients, they are liaisons between the patients under a facility's care and the professionals who care for them. CNAs may have different titles depending on the state in which they work; they may instead be called nursing aides or attendants.
Earning a professional certificate through a training program is more than just a possible way of finding work as a nursing assistant; it's also a prerequisite for employment in every US state. A certificate program prepares prospective CNAs for the state-administered training exam. As such, at many schools, the program is brief, consisting of a course that covers the knowledge that nursing assistants must know along with coursework in medical terminology and basic computing skills.
Pharmacy technicians assist pharmacists in mixing, counting, and generally preparing medications. They work at all times under a pharmacist's supervision, and though they interact with patients in receiving prescription information, they generally refer all questions from patients about healthcare issues to the pharmacist.
Because the demand for pharmacy technicians is increasing, schools have begun offering training programs in various formats. Some offer traditional training programs, complete with laboratory experience, that last about a year, while others offer abbreviated courses that prepare students for the pharmacy technician certification exam and provide students with a certificate of completion.
The accreditation of an online degree or certificate program should be an important consideration for prospective healthcare students. Independent agencies grant accreditation to schools and programs that meet established standards with regard to their curricula, faculty members, research programs, and student resources, so attending one of these institutions will help ensure that you receive a worthwhile education.
Accreditation is also of particular importance for healthcare disciplines, as many professional healthcare roles are regulated by state boards. Most state licensing boards require candidates to obtain professional certification, and many certification exams are only available to applicants who have completed an accredited degree program. It's always best to verify the eligibility requirements for your chosen profession before enrolling in a certificate or degree program.
Many healthcare professions have their own specialized accrediting body. These agencies evaluate individual degree programs on their ability to meet their specific industry's standards. Some of the important programmatic accrediting agencies for healthcare disciplines include the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), which accredits a wide variety of professional healthcare programs; the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), which accredits a variety of nursing programs; and the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM), which accredits associate and bachelor's degrees in health information management. Accrediting agencies should always be recognized by the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Like many industries, there are certain education and licensing requirements for the various positions within the healthcare field. Many workers in this environment have a great deal of responsibility, and the qualification of their skills is important. Healthcare facilities need to be protected with highly qualified practitioners, and members of the public need to feel confident in their services when seeking treatment. Because the qualifications vary so much for every healthcare position, it's important to contact your state's regulatory boards to find out the exact eligibility requirements for your desired occupation. The following examples are just some of the popular career certification paths for online healthcare students.
An associate degree is the minimum requirement for nurses and technicians. Some healthcare careers only require a certification to be employed in these fields, and some healthcare facilities pay for the necessary associate degree and certification in exchange for employment for a certain period of time. There are no mandatory certification requirements for most healthcare workers at the associate level.
There are, however, voluntary certifications available for many subfields of healthcare support positions. These can act as resume boosters or avenues for highlighting one’s professional abilities. For example, nursing aides that become federally certified are known as Certified Nursing Assistants, or CNAs, in most states. Medical assistants can seek out credentials from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) or the Association of Medical Technologists (AMT). The Association for Healthcare Documentation Integrity (AHDI) certifies medical transcriptionists.
Many healthcare careers have a prerequisite of a bachelor's degree. Physician assistants (PAs), registered nurses (RNs), and health services managers must all obtain a bachelor's degree. PAs must pass an accredited PA program through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination. RNs become licensed in their state by passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).
Healthcare administrators, managers, and physical therapists must earn master's degrees, and some must have a doctorate for employment. Some states require licenses for administrators in assisted living facilities; these are the only healthcare facilities that require administrators to be licensed. Graduates who hope to become healthcare managers could earn the Certified Manager credential from Institute of Certified Professional Managers, or the Registered Health Information Administrator credential from the American Health Information Management Association.
The career opportunities for healthcare graduates are as varied as the type of degrees that are offered. Those with associate degrees can secure entry-level positions in healthcare facilities like hospitals, urgent care clinics, and doctors' offices. Individuals with bachelor’s degrees or master’s degrees may work in higher level managerial positions in those same facilities. For example, a nurse with a master’s degree might manage a team of nurses, some of whom have associate degrees.
Some individuals with medical degrees or master’s degrees may open their own private office, such as a nurse practitioner’s office or a family practice. Individuals with doctoral degrees in healthcare fields may conduct research in academic institutions or act as expert consultants to the government or private industry. Here are some examples of career specializations available to students enrolled in a healthcare degree program:
- Ambulatory Services: Ambulatory services workers assist in many areas like clinical tests, blood and organ banks, medical labs, diagnostic imaging, and outpatient care.
- Dentistry: Dentists provide cosmetic, emergency, and routine care. Some dentists specialize in fields like periodontics or orthodontics.
- Diagnosis and Treatment: This area is made up of professionals like physicians, physician assistants, and registered nurses, who find the causes of diseases and illness and administer therapies to patients.
- Healthcare Management: The overall operation of a healthcare facility falls under the supervision of healthcare administrators or managers. Along with scrutinizing financial statements and managing staff, healthcare managers are responsible for providing a safe and effective healthcare facility for the public.
- Healthcare Support: These workers do not aid in disease diagnosis or treatment, but they do provide services that help ensure the running of the healthcare system, such as medical office management and medical transcription.
- Health Technologists and Technicians: Health technologists and technicians are skilled workers who aid in the diagnosis and treatment of a disease. They may operate a piece of technology, like an X-ray machine or occupy other support roles in disease diagnosis.
- Management: Individuals in healthcare management oversee the day-to-day operations of healthcare facilities; they supervise staff, make financial decisions, and oversee quality control.
- Nursing: Nurses provide assistance in inpatient and outpatient care. They also assist in rehabilitation and personal care for those requiring continuous nursing care.
- Physicians and Surgeons: Whether in private practices or at healthcare centers, physicians and surgeons usually specialize in specific areas of healthcare and collaborate with others to reduce costs while providing more services for patients.
- Medical and Health Services Managers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm.
- Medical Assistants. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm.
- Medical Records and Health Information Technicians. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-records-and-health-information-technicians.htm.
- Nursing Assistants and Orderlies. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nursing-assistants.htm.
- Pharmacy Technicians. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/pharmacy-technicians.htm.
- Physician Assistants. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm.
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