Healthcare Certificates vs. Diplomas vs. Degrees Online

You want a higher education in healthcare, but you’re not sure what you need and where to start. Learn the difference between a certificate, a diploma, and a degree, which one makes the most sense for your career path, and which are available online.

Reliable and effective healthcare depends on trained professionals with technical knowledge and proven skills. The right education makes this possible, but with all the references to certificates, diplomas, and degrees – both campus and online — you may not know where to begin or how these options actually differ. To help you understand the differences and make the right higher education decision for you, this guide looks at certificates, diplomas, and degrees in detail. It breaks down each credential option, reviews the main pros and cons of each, and discusses the major factors to consider when finally choosing an option.

Key Differences

Not all healthcare credentials are the same. Certificates, diplomas, and degrees each have their own specific value, but the way that value is measured can differ. This section discusses some of the key differences between these credentials and how those differences impact your work and future advancement. It looks at timeframes for completion, flexibility, affordability, and potential for career advancement. At the end of the section, we offer a score for each credential based on these factors. For example, faster time to completion results in a higher score, as does greater affordability, increased flexibility, and more opportunity for growth.

1. Time to Completion

You may find yourself wondering how long the credentialing process will take. Program length is one of the most immediate and pressing concerns. It can affect your long-term future, especially if you want to make a career move down the road or enter a new job quickly without delay. Some credentials can be earned in a year or less, while other more comprehensive offerings can take several years with additional benefits. Others may fall somewhere in between, though of course there are always exceptions. How do you decide? We help answer this question below by detailing typical timeframes for healthcare certificate, diplomas, and degrees.

Certificates

Certificates offer the quickest path to completion, but this doesn’t mean they lack value or rigor. In fact, their short timeframes can place more immediate and intensive demands on your time, especially since many healthcare careers involve direct patient care and advanced technical knowledge. That said, many certificates can be earned in within a single year, and some take months or weeks, depending on the program. Other factors that can impact your path to completion at this level include required exams and supervised work hours on the job. Below we list several certificates along with typical timeframes for completion.

Note: Even certificate programs within a specialty can vary. We’ve included some wider ranges to show you what to expect on the short and longer sides of training.

Healthcare Certificate Timeframes

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): 4-8 weeks

Home Health Aide: 4-8 weeks

Medical Billing and Coding: 2-6 months

Pharmacy Tech: 4-6 months

Medical Assistant: 6-12 months

Diplomas

Most diplomas will take longer than certificates in the same area, but not as long as a traditional degree. They offer a specialized course of study similar to certificates, but where certificates generally focus on a particular skill, diplomas supplement that skill set with additional technical insight. Unlike degrees, diplomas also forgo general education requirements and instead build on academic knowledge obtained during secondary education. They tie that knowledge to a specific healthcare sub-field and are a typically awarded by community colleges and other two-year schools. As the examples below indicate, most diplomas can be completed in 1-2 years or less depending on the program and field of study.

Healthcare Diploma Timeframes

Medical Billing and Coding: 9-12 months

Pharmacy Technician: 9-12 months

Medical Assistant: 9-15 months

Surgical Technologist: 12-18 months

Degrees

Healthcare degrees require more of a long-term commitment. Even though some degrees are shorter than others, virtually all of them take longer to complete than a diploma or certificate and are conferred by four-year academic universities and two-year colleges. Regardless of their level (associate, bachelor’s, etc.) each degree builds on previous learning experiences and usually requires some form of general education instruction alongside specialized study.

Associate degrees are the shortest and can usually be completed in 2 years. They stand between secondary education and a bachelor’s degree, both in terms of length and qualification. Bachelor’s degrees take a bit longer—four years on average—but may be obtained quicker if you already have a diploma or associate degree in hand. In fact, most associate degree programs offer convenient pathways so you can transfer into a bachelor’s program at an accelerated pace. Finally, a master’s degree provides opportunities for further specialization or advanced study in your field of choice. They require that you first earn a relevant bachelor’s degree and usually entail a 1-2-year commitment depending on the field of study.

Healthcare Degree Timeframes

Associate Degree in Physical Therapy: 2 years

Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene: 2 years

Bachelor of Science in Nursing: 4 years

Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Administration: 3-4 years

Master of Science in Health Information Management: 5-7 years

2. Affordability

3. Career Flexibility

4. Career Growth

How They Stack Up

Most rating systems are subjective, but the good ones offer value through comparison. See how certificates, diplomas, and degrees stuck up against each in our four main categories:

Certificates Diplomas Degrees
Time to Completion OOOO OOO OO
Affordability OOOO OOO OO
Career Flexibility O OO OOO
Career Growth O OO OOOO

Great: OOOO
Good: OOO
Fair: OO
Poor: O

Most Popular Certificates in Healthcare

In this section, we look at some of the most popular certificates in healthcare. The credentials listed below are not the only options out there, but they do represent a good cross-section of opportunities in the field. They run the gamut from more administrative positions to technical and skill-based work in nursing, coding, and documentation. These credentials are conferred by a variety of accredited public, private, and vocational schools.

Phlebotomy Technician Certificate

This credential qualifies you for work as a phlebotomist in hospitals and other health services facilities. It looks at how to draw blood from patients for tests, research, transfusions, or donations. Phlebotomists take great care to ensure that all blood samples are properly labelled and entered into applicable databases.

Time to completion

2-3 months

Median salary

$35,510

Available online?

Varies

Healthcare Documentation Certificate

Professionals with this certificate are qualified to work as medical transcriptionists and clinical documentation specialists. They work closely with physicians and other medical experts to convert voice recordings and other data into written reports. A typical course of study involves self-paced online courses and a comprehensive exam.

Time to completion

6-12 months

Median salary

$33,380

Available online?

Yes

Medical Coding Certificate

Earning this certificate demonstrates that you are familiar with allied health procedures related to medical insurance and billing. Medical coders generally work in hospitals or other healthcare facilities. They safeguard sensitive data and use standardized classification systems to organize patient information, assess insurance claims, and generate invoices and billing statements.

Time to completion

2-6 months

Median salary

$40,350

Available online?

Yes

Surgical Technologist Certificate

Surgical technologists assist surgeons, registered nurses, and other physicians in the operating room. Earning this credential demonstrates that you know how to prepare operating rooms, sterilize and arrange equipment, and ready patients for surgery and other invasive procedures. Professionals in this field often work in large hospitals and outpatient care centers.

Time to completion

9-15 months

Median salary

$48,300

Available online?

Yes

Nursing Assistant Certificate

This certificate prepares professionals for ambulatory work as nursing assistants or orderlies. Most programs develop caregiving basics and teach learners how to measure vital signs, prevent infections, and assist with range of motion exercises. Most nursing assistants works as part of a larger healthcare team led by a registered nurse or other nursing professionals with greater qualifications in the field.

Time to completion

1-2 months

Median salary

$29,640

Available online?

Yes

Most Popular Diplomas in Healthcare

The options listed below represent just a few available options for diploma-holders in healthcare. They include work in dentistry, nursing, medical assisting, and other areas. Like certificates, these credentials are usually administered by accredited colleges and universities. Most come from public schools or two-year institutions, although some options may be available at relevant private schools as well.

Dental Assisting Diploma

This diploma prepares you for work in dental offices providing patient care, maintaining records, and scheduling appointments. Its builds core skills in basic dental procedures like X-ray analysis, dental impressions, and tooth polishing. Some dental assistants may also discuss oral care and treatment plans with patients alongside presiding dentists.

Time to completion

1 year or less

Median salary

$40,080

Available online?

Yes

Medical Assisting Diploma

Medical assistants complete important clinical and administrative tasks in physicians’ offices, hospitals, and other healthcare centers. Obtaining this diploma builds the knowledge and skill necessary to record patient history, measure vital signs, and prepare blood samples for testing and analysis. Some programs may also develop medical coding knowledge as well.

Time to completion

9-15 months

Median salary

$34,800

Available online?

Yes

Registered Nurse Diploma

Professionals with this diploma are qualified for entry-level work as registered nurses in healthcare centers, community clinics, and other facilities. This credential builds the core skills needed to perform diagnostic tests, monitor patient health, and both develop and administer effective treatment plans. RNs work alongside other health professionals and may oversee a team of nursing assistants and home health aides.

Time to completion

2-3 years

Median salary

$73,300

Available online?

Varies

Pharmacy Technician Diploma

This credential prepares students for work assisting pharmacists. Technicians in this field gather information need fill prescriptions and measure dosage amounts. They also package and label medications, interface with patients, and organize inventory. At times they may also communicate with primary care physicians regarding sensitive medical information.

Time to completion

9-12 months

Median salary

$33,950

Available online?

Yes

Vocational Nurse Diploma

Professionals with this diploma provide basic medical care under the supervision of physicians and other nurse practitioners. They discuss care options with patients and their families, collect data, and monitor health progress using a variety of tools and implements. Depending on their state of practice certain tasks may be limited and may require additional licensure.

Time to completion

1-2 years

Median salary

$47,480

Available online?

Yes

Most Popular Degrees in Healthcare

Finally, we list some prominent degree options for aspiring healthcare professionals. We focus on undergraduate degrees here because you will need to obtain one before you pursue a master’s degree in your chosen area of expertise. These areas include but are not limited to nursing, sports medicine, healthcare administration, informatics, and clinical lab science. Associate degrees are usually awarded by community colleges and other two-year institutions, while graduate and undergraduate programs remain within public colleges and private universities.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Degree-holders with this credential stand fully qualified for a range of nursing-related careers, including work as licensed practical nurses and registered nurses. Both work as part of a team and rely on skills in treatment planning, diagnosis, and long-term care. Some programs may extend the opportunity to specialize in a specific nursing sub-field.

Time to completion

4 years

Median salary

$73,300

Available online?

Yes

Bachelor’s in Healthcare Administration

Professionals with this degree often land work as medical administrators and healthcare service managers. A typical course of study blends healthcare knowledge with core management and administrative skills. Graduates often plan, direct, and coordinate the business side of healthcare delivery. In some cases, they may oversee large hospitals and healthcare centers.

Time to completion

4 years

Median salary

$100,980

Available online?

Yes

Bachelor of Science in Sports Medicine

Earning this degree qualifies you for work as an athletic trainer in schools, colleges, and professional sports organizations. It teaches you how to treat common injuries associated with sport activities and develop rehabilitation programs for affected athletes. Many programs also cover the more administrative side of sports training like budgeting, purchasing, and policy applications.

Time to completion

4 years

Median salary

$48,440

Available online?

Yes

Bachelor’s in Health Informatics

This degree builds knowledge in healthcare services and information technology, ultimately preparing you for work at the intersection of both worlds. Health informatics professionals improve organizational efficiency and patient outcomes by organizing electronic health records in accordance with state and federal regulations. They may manage the entirety of their organization’s networks and databases, or they may focus on one specific aspect like automated billing or data collection.

Time to completion

4 years

Median salary

$83,510

Available online?

Yes

Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science

This course of study prepares scientific and analytically-minded individuals for work clinical laboratories and medical research centers. It builds advanced knowledge in chemistry, microbiology, and epidemiology. Professionals in this sub-field collect samples, perform tests and experiments, and analyze results in order to develop better methods of treatment and facilitate new medical discoveries.

Time to completion

4 years

Median salary

$53,120

Available online?

Yes