Guide to Online Schools & Programs in Medical & Health

How does online and hybrid learning work in medical and healthcare education? What do you need to know before you apply and enroll? Find the answers you need here.

The need for a flexible higher education is growing. A 2018 study by the Babson Survey Research Group found that more than 6.3 million U.S. students took an online course in 2015, an increase of 5.6% over the previous year. That jump is not new: this is the 14th straight year Babson has reported growth in online course enrollment. Online programs are increasingly popular among those who have full-time or part-time jobs, family responsibilities, or other needs that make distance learning easier, such as members of the military or those with a disability.

Today’s students can find an online program in almost any field, including healthcare and medical support professions. Even programs that typically have a strong hands-on element, such as nursing or occupational therapy, can deliver the bulk of classroom learning through online platforms. These hybrid or blended programs allow students the flexibility of online courses combined with the hands-on training that fully prepares them for the rigors of the job. Let’s take a look at how online learning works in healthcare higher education.

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How It All Works: Online Education in Healthcare

In the world of healthcare, some professions are more hands-on than others. The amount of online learning in a program usually depends on the amount of academic, clerical, and clinical knowledge needed to succeed in a particular career. For example, medical biller and coder responsibilities lie almost exclusively with academic and clerical work, which is why these programs can be entirely online. On the other hand, nurses work with patients in a clinical setting every day, meaning that most nursing programs have a heavy face-to-face component.

Here’s a quick look at example courses within each category, and whether or not they can be taken online:

Academic Courses Online: Yes

These courses set the foundation of knowledge for any health-oriented education program. In fact, many programs – from nursing to medical assisting to radiology tech and more – will include courses similar to these. Since there is no hands-on work involved, they can be taken mostly or fully online.

Anatomy and physiology – Learning to read a “road map” of the human body

Basic or advanced biology – Provides an understanding of basic physical processes for human beings

Human diseases – A look at human disease through the lifespan

Mathematics – Important for understanding the basics of calculating dosages, figuring out billing and coding errors, etc.

Medical law and ethics – Understanding the ethical and legal aspects of healthcare work

Medical terminology – An overview of the most common medical terms

Nutrition – A look at proper nutrition for different age groups

Patient assessment – How to take and understand vital signs and patient histories

Pharmacology – Study of the various drugs that can be administered to patients

Clerical Courses Online: Yes

These courses focus on the paperwork that drives so much of the healthcare system today. Like the academic courses, these can be taught and taken via the web.

Administrative procedures – A deeper understanding of management practices and administrative responsibilities

HIPPA compliance and ethics – The laws and requirements in place for healthcare workers concerning privacy, ethics, legal issues and more

Insurance and finance – A dive into third-party systems, the structure of insurance companies, appeals and more

Insurance appeals – Learning the ins and outs of the appeals process

Medical billing – Learning how to use appropriate billing practices that keep a medical business running

Medical coding – Practicing coding with ICD-10 and other codes that ensure healthcare workers get paid

Medical office procedures – Understanding all the basics of how a medical office works

Medical transcription – Transcribing notes and dictations from healthcare providers to create an up-to-date medical chart

Clinical Courses Online: No

These are courses that must be completed in person, as they have a hands-on elements that simply cannot be taught through online means. Some courses might be a hybrid, in which some of the assignments can be completed online while other assignments must be completed in a classroom or clinical setting.

Clinical nursing residency – Working hands-on with patients under the close supervision of a registered nurse or physician. These courses can be specialized depending upon the educational path; examples include pediatric, obstetrics and women’s health, gerontology, cancer clinics, etc.

Fieldwork (or practicum) – Putting education to work in an approved setting, under the watchful eye of seasoned medical professionals

Internship – Completing a certain number of hours in a clinical, hospital, nursing home or the like, completing duties as assigned

Physical assessment lab – Learning to assess patients’ vital signs, overall appearance and complaints in a medical setting

Online Learning Platforms & Tech

For most schools, online learning is handled by a learning management system. Through these platforms, colleges can tailor their programs through the use of video chat, discussion boards, virtual scheduling calendars, integrated video streaming, and more. These platforms also allow for a variety of online resources to be integrated with the student’s program, such as tutoring options and library services. Here are some of the more common platforms and tech an online student might encounter:

Blackboard

Brightspace

Bridge LMS

Canvas

Coursera

Desire2Learn

DocADFSAebo

eCoach

Edmodo

LearnUpon

Moodle

Udacity

Online courses can be delivered either synchronously (which means a student must be in front of the computer at a designated time), or asynchronously (the student still has regular deadlines, but doesn’t have “class” on any set schedule).

The 3 Types of Online Programs

Now that you know how these online programs work, what are your options for taking courses online? For some programs, you can look forward to an entirely online experience and never set foot in a classroom. But for others, you might have to attend some in-person sessions. Here’s what you’ll see the most when looking into medical support and healthcare programs.  

  • Fully online

    In this type of program, students will complete every bit of their coursework online. This includes everything that is required for graduation, such as all general education, academic or clerical classes, as well as any examinations, group projects or collaborations. These programs employ distance learning to the fullest, which allows students from across the country to participate in the program. Examples of programs that use fully online formats to full advantage include:

  • Hybrid or blended

    Hybrid (also called blended) courses are exactly what they sound like: they include both online courses and a hands-on element. But not all hybrid programs require the same amount of face-to-face learning. Mostly online programs are heavy on distance courses and light on hands-on training, while partially online programs simply allow students to supplement their in-person college experience with some online courses. Here’s a deeper dive into the two.

    Mostly online: In these programs, a vast majority of courses can be taken online. Students can also complete exams through online proctoring, and can even work with other students for in-depth collaboration on assignments, reports and projects. In this situation, the only face-to-face work a student must complete will be in courses that require laboratory work, clinicals, or an internship. A few examples of programs that can take the mostly online approach include:

    Partially online: In this type of hybrid program, students spend most of their time on campus. They take many courses in a traditional classroom on a regular semester schedule. However, some of their courses – especially prerequisites, general education courses and basic fundamentals of healthcare courses – can be taken online. Exams tend to be completed in person, and, of course, the hands-on work happens on campus or at an approved facility nearby. In a program like this, the use of online courses is a convenience for the student who wants a little more flexibility. Programs that often use this approach include:

    Remember that online schools and programs in medical and health can vary widely. Even programs that culminate in the same certificate can have different requirements. For instance, one medical assisting certificate program may be partially online, while another will be mostly online; the former will have many more hands-on requirements than the latter. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to research potential programs thoroughly to determine which ones meet your personal needs.

How Online Schools Tackle Hands-on Requirements

Each online school has its own way of tackling the hands-on requirements for students in programs with moderate to heavy patient work. In some cases, the work can be completed at the college or university, or at a healthcare facility nearby. But what about those who live across the country from their online school? There are options for them as well. Here are a few of the most common questions asked by potential students:

1. How much in-person work is required?

This will depend greatly upon the program focus. For instance, a phlebotomist might have only a few weeks of hands-on training, while an aspiring nurse might face several semesters of clinical work. Internships might take up an entire summer or longer. To determine how much in-person work will be required, it’s always a good idea to study the curriculum plan of the program you hope to attend. Also, don’t be afraid to call a program representative and ask! Quality schools with online programs will have someone available to address any concerns you might have.

2. Where do online students complete their hands-on work?

3. Does the school set them up or do they find them on their own?

4. How does a student go about finding their own opportunities?

If you’re moving into a profession that requires plenty of hands-on work with patients – such as nursing or occupational therapy – any reputable program is going to require extensive hours of clinicals or an internship. Completing these hands-on sections are needed for graduation; beyond that, they are critical to getting hired. Employers want to know their new hires can hit the ground running, with excellent skills already learned through their educational program. If you’re headed for a patient-centric career, be very wary of any program that says “no hands-on work needed!”

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Interview with an Online Student in Healthcare

Chris-Caulfield

Chris Caulfield RN, FNP-C is the Chief Nursing Officer of the nursing workforce management organization called IntelyCare. He earned his Masters Degree in Nursing from Frontier Nursing University.

Q. What did you find were the most valuable parts of your online program, and how did they strengthen your skills?

A. My distance-based education helped enforce critical thinking skills and independence. I’ve had the opportunities to get several degrees mainly from traditional on-site universities and college. When you are at school going to class 3 days a week it is easier to stay on track; however, when attending a university that is online, deadlines can quickly approach without much of a reminder. My organizational skills and personal ‘to-do list’ were forced to be quickly brought up to a higher level of execution.

Q. What were the most challenging aspects of taking the online classes?

A. Trying to figure out your own learning style. When taking classes at a traditional university, you have an in person instructor and it is easy to form a study group with your peers. On the other hand, [with] online courses it is sometimes more difficult quickly communicating with your instructors and many of your fellow students live in other states. I found that I best learned my graduate level Nursing courses by utilizing (nursing and medical) board review books and watching some great YouTube videos focused on the subject/topic I was trying to better understand.

Q. What was a typical day of school like for you?

A. For my didactic portion of my NP program, I’d typically spend about 5-6 hours per day reading my textbooks, review books, and watching videos. I’d usually spend several hours at my house and then take a walk to a local coffee shop for another couple of hours of studying. During my clinical training, I would typically spend 2-3 days per week for an 8-hour day at local healthcare clinics up until I reached around 1,000 clinical hours.

Q. How well do you feel your online program prepared you for your career in healthcare? What in particular made it such a great fit?

A. I feel that my NP program did a great job of preparing me as Nurse Practitioner. My school had a great mix of introduction in-person orientations that I was able to meet my fellow distance-based Nursing students as well as a great online community via forums.

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Interview with a Teacher/Professor of an Online Program in Medical Support/Healthcare

Christine A. Argenbright, PhD, RN, is the CNL/NA Program Coordinator and an Associate Professor at James Madison University.

Q. What should students look for in a reputable online program (beyond accreditation and graduation rates)?

A. Review the curriculum and expected full and part-time completion times. How long will it take you to complete the program? Does the program have restricted timelines? Explore options for increasing and decreasing course loads. What active role does the student have to take on to facilitate course enrollment and practicum expectations when applicable? Are the courses asynchronous, synchronous or combination? How often is campus presence mandatory? Is deferment a possibility without being dropped from the program?

Q. On the other hand, what should students avoid when choosing the right program for them?

A. Avoid overextending yourself and increasing financial stress. How much time can you honestly commit? Avoid financial burden. How many financial resources are available to you and how much debt will you occur?

Q. What can students do during their program to help improve their chances of getting hired upon graduation?

A. Make a wise decision about your program selection that supports future endeavors. For example, will a degree from a specific program give you a competitive edge? Build a strong network of professional connections while in school. Avoid a silo mentality. Engage in your community and seek out opportunities to connect with individuals who are currently working in the area you desire to be in after graduation.

Q. Any other insights you’d like to add about online medical and health programs?

A. Your quality of life is more important than the quality of the program. Before you begin the process of searching and selecting an online program, make sure you are clear about your short- and long-term goals. The program you select must be in alignment with the expectations you have set for your own success. The program should support you; it should not be a barrier to your success.

Read Up Roundup

Choosing the best medical and health program is not an easy task. When you throw the various online options into the mix, the venture gets even more difficult. Even though we’ve given you a great start in understanding the options, there’s so much more to learn about online programs, and so many decisions to make on the path to determining which one is right for you. If you’re looking for more, check out these helpful resources.

American Medical Association. Designed for physicians but with an enormous amount of information anyone in the medical field can use, this is a great place to learn more about advances in healthcare.

Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions. From radiologist to medical assistant to nurse and more, aspiring healthcare professionals can turn to this site for information on allied health degrees, schools and careers.

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook. This valuable resource has a wealth of information on almost any career imaginable, including those in allied health, nursing, medicine and the like.

Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. This important organization looks at the quality of various programs for allied health professionals.

Explore Health Careers. This site offers everything from advice on how to find the best education to job boards, events, resources and more.

Federal-Student-Aid

Federal Student Aid. The home of the FAFSA, this site provides information on financial aid, grants, loans and other ways to pay for a college education.

Health-Professionals-Network

Health Professionals Network. Here you can find news and information on a variety of health-related issues faced by professionals in the field.

U-S--Department-of-Education-Accreditation

U.S. Department of Education: Accreditation. Finding an accredited school is vitally important for all students seeking a certificate, diploma or degree. This page explains everything about it.

What-is-eLearning

What is eLearning? Known as online learning, distance education and even the virtual classroom, taking courses online can be tough to understand at first. Here’s a primer courtesy of the state of North Carolina.