Whenever you’re planning to pursue an online/distance education degree or certificate, you need to ask yourself plenty of hard questions, such as whether you have the discipline to succeed in an online format and whether the online approach fits your learning style.
But if you’re thinking of pursuing a healthcare-related degree or certificate online, the much more critical questions you need to ask center not on you, but on the provider.
“Anyone considering a health-related distance learning degree or certificate should be supercareful,” says online/distance education expert Vicky Phillips, chief education analyst and founder of GetEducated.com, a Web site that teaches consumers about online/distance education programs -- and scams.
Indeed, online/distance programs focusing on healthcare careers are among those that receive the most consumer complaints on GetEducated.com, Phillips stresses.
Yes, there are plenty of legitimate, high-quality healthcare education programs online these days, for both clinical and nonclinical career paths. But you’ll find lots of pretenders, too, which can cost you thousands of dollars and leave you with little or nothing in terms of either solid learning or improved career prospects.
How do you tell the good programs from the bad? Look very closely at characteristics like these:
Is the program you’re considering not just accredited, but accredited by a legitimate accrediting organization?
“There now exist hundreds of online schools and colleges offering health-related career degrees or diplomas, and a hefty percentage of [them] are accredited by fake agencies,” Phillips says. “If you earn a degree or diploma from one of these schools, you’ll find your credentials no good for career or job placement.”
So take note: If a particular school’s accrediting agency doesn’t show up in the database of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, consider that absence a huge red flag.
The healthcare sector is highly regulated by both state and national licensing boards, Phillips says. So whatever healthcare-oriented degree or certificate you might pursue through an online/distance education provider, make sure ahead of time that the program meets industry standards, especially those specific to the state where you plan to work.
“Take the time to research and understand your state’s licensing requirements for any healthcare occupation,” Phillips says. “Don’t buy an education that won’t translate into a career transition.”
Required Field Experience -- or Lack Thereof
Clinically oriented healthcare specialties in particular, such as nursing or radiography, "cannot and should not be taught totally online,” says Juanita Zapata Flint, executive dean of the health and human services division at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, Texas.
Why? Because they’re called clinical programs for a reason: The hands-on skills you gain through clinical field experiences are as crucial as the textbook knowledge you learn in your classes.
“I would question the quality of a program that only offered didactic, online instruction with no clinical,” Zapata Flint stresses. “Online courses are recommended for many core curriculum courses, but not for courses that have clinical requirements. Be wary of any institution that touts a totally online program for healthcare professionals.”
How You’re Asked to Pay
Look out for the online/distance education program that requires you to pony up all your tuition and fees right away, in one large sum.
“Distance learning suffers from a high dropout rate, and these schools know this,” Phillips says. “One trick they often use to make money is to get students to pay for everything up-front -- often thousands of dollars -- and then refuse to make a refund when, after one course, the student discovers the program isn’t for them.”
By law, Phillips says, all education providers must outline their payment terms and refund policies in their financial agreements with students. So “read the fine print,” she warns. “Then read it again.”
After all, if you want to take care of others someday as a healthcare practitioner, you first need to take care of yourself.