Medical assistants work in physician's offices and other healthcare facilities, performing administrative tasks such as managing patient records and setting appointments. They may also perform tasks such as collecting patients' vital signs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical assistants often do not need a formal degree to begin work, and most learn their duties on the job. However, many formal programs are available to train medical assistants, including diploma and certificate programs. The primary differences between the two are the length to completion and the kinds of classes students must take.

Length of Program

The time to complete a medical assistant diploma or certificate program averages out at about a year. However, most diploma programs are a bit longer. For example, the medical assisting diploma at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina takes 15 months to complete, while the medical assistant certificate at PIMA Medical Institute, which has campuses in several states, takes 9 months to complete. The duration of any program will depend upon the number of credit hours required and whether students must follow a set schedule. If students can be flexible with their schedules, they may be able to finish faster by taking more classes at a time.

Number of Courses

A certificate program typically requires students to complete fewer classes, though there is great variability between programs. For example, the certificate program at Norwalk Community College in Florida only requires 9 courses while the certificate program at PIMA Medical Institute requires 17 courses -- many of which are only 1 credit hour or a half credit hour. The diploma program at Durham Technical Community College includes 15 courses, with classes worth between 1 and 5 credit hours depending on the subject and course load.

Types of Courses

There is a lot of crossover between a degree and certificate program in the kinds of classes that are taken. Classes often focus on basic computer skills, such as word processing, database management and insurance coding. Other classes include an overview of anatomy and physiology, basic medical terms, communications, medical ethics, health law and laboratory procedures. Though class subjects are very similar in both diploma and certificate programs, many diploma programs go more into depth on some subjects since they often include more classes.

Clinical Experience

Most medical assistant programs require some clinical experience in the form of an externship in order to graduate. At Everest College, which has campuses across the country, students in the certificate program must finish a 160-hour externship upon completion of their courses and before they graduate. The certificate program at PIMA Medical Institute requires students to finish 200 hours of clinical experience at the end of their course work. Hours and requirements vary by program, but students should expect to complete some kind of clinical work at either a diploma or certificate program.