Based on an article by Myrna Traylor, from the AMT Pulse.
As is the case for nearly every healthcare role, the need for qualified medical assistants is at an all-time high. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that medical assistant job growth is expected to increase 14% for the 10-year period from 2022–2032, much faster than the average growth rate of 3% predicted for all occupations. Different entities have developed programs to help medical assistant candidates get the training they need to fill vacant positions. In many respects, these workforce development programs resemble apprenticeships— whether they are formally recognized as such—where candidates are paid to work and learn at the same time.
Bronson Healthcare, a regional, locally owned health system in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has instituted a preceptor program to manage medical assistant intake and training. Mary Schabes, System Director, Center for Learning at Bronson Healthcare, supported the implementation of the program. “The MA program is eight months total,” she explains. “We have them work their first 90 days in a brand-new role that we created, called a clinical assistant.”
In the role, candidates perform tasks similar to what medical assistants do, but it doesn’t require full training, Schabes says. With this, candidates get a full day of clinical orientation with clinical Staff Development Instructors before going to the individual practices where they meet their preceptor.
Schabes explains that at this point the clinical assistants are helping with patient throughput, which is a Bronson organizational priority. “They’re able to room patients and do basic vitals, which allows the MAs with the higher-level skills to move to where they are needed, specifically in offices that are short-staffed.”
This 90-day stint is an introductory period before they enter the MA training program. “The intention behind this is to make sure they know what they’re getting into as a career as a Medical Assistant,” says Schabes. “I think people have an idea of what the job will be like and then they’re handling urine and blood and so forth. We give them exposure to the realities of the role, so they can ask themselves, ‘Is this something that I really want to do?’”
For those who continue with the program, the remaining five months consist of classroom training with clinical instructors and placement days, where candidates go to a variety of offices for their externships and can practice their new skills with a preceptor. They begin to apply their classroom knowledge by working with patients, practicing blood draws and more. Schabes says that the candidates are learning and practicing their skills throughout the healthcare system. “With those various assignments over the five months, we are preparing them to take the RMA test,” she says. “They accomplish their tasks and may get an MA position if they pass the first time. If not, they can continue in the clinical assistant role while they prepare to retest with support from the instructors.” Training for administrative skills and knowledge is also an important piece of becoming an RMA.
In addition to the clinical training, Bronson’s program has hired a Vocational Program Coordinator who has taught in other AMT-eligible programs and advises and coaches candidates beyond clinical skill development. By acting in a supportive role in cases where a candidate is not quite mastering a skill, is having a hard time communicating or has a financial issue, the coordinator can help find solutions to keep people from dropping out of the program. This role was instrumental in the development and success of the program, Schabes says.
Sheri Piper Henry, CEO, ICATAP LLC, has established a program for medical assistant training that allows a clinic system to start an apprentice any day of the week, any week of the year. “Whenthey enter into the apprenticeship, they enter into a three-year contract,” she says. “The first year is to do the [training] program, which they can complete in nine months to one year, from 1,400 to 2,000 hours of work-study.”
ICATAP serves several rural health clinics and hospitals in Wisconsin and Minnesota that have identified preceptors and hired MA candidates; Henry’s company provides curriculum and program coordination, so the apprentices’ studies and labs are keyed to the requirements of a given office or clinic’s needs.
“Basically, it is immersion learning,” Henry says. “You get a solid crossover because you see it, then you read about it, or you read about it, and you see it. We don’t necessarily follow what academia would call ‘the correct order’ because we coordinate it, so it goes with what they’re doing at work. If they’re having ECGs coming down the pipeline, that’s what they’re studying. If they need do injections because they’re in family practice, that is their upcoming lesson.”
Once the candidates complete the program, their employers usually give them anywhere from 90 days to one year to pass the RMA exam. The MAs agree to work for the clinic, hospital or practice for one more year, and after that, depending on the employer’s affiliations, the MA can ask to transfer to a different office or department. “They’re not just tied to this one specific job for three years unless, of course, they want that one job, then they can stay there,” says Henry.
Flexibility is a guiding principle of the program. Preceptors can change to address teaching preferences, and candidates get different perspectives on the way that they train. “There might be one preceptor who likes starting with the basics, and then they move the candidate to another person who does more advanced skills. Or you stay with the same person the entire year,” Henry explains.
Another benefit of the program is that apprentices may come from many different types of work experiences. “One manager told me about two apprentices who started within just a few weeks of each other,” Henry says. “One had been a licensed practical nursing student who had finished part of the schooling but couldn’t afford to finish the rest. The other was a librarian. She said, ‘I had two polar opposite people come into this program, very close together, and they both completed the program and passed their exams right away. They were both successful.’” Henry is proud of the program’s test pass rates. “We’ve had 28 complete the program. So far, 14 have taken the RMA and passed, and just one failed.”
But an even greater source of accomplishment comes from matching people who are committed to medical assisting with the organizations that need them. “This could actually be a lifesaver for rural healthcare,” Henry says. “It absolutely can be a lifesaver for clinics and hospitals who are short-staffed. There are some big barriers out there to education in isolated rural areas. And a lot of the people that fit into this type of program are people that clinics already have employed. Maybe they work a front desk, and they would like to advance to something else. They just can’t quit their job to go to school. This gives people who grew up in these communities the option to stay. Program participants love the fact that they have this opportunity to learn and love the fact that they are not going broke doing it.”
Sense of Purpose
Another partnership has created a beneficial synergy between an educational institution and a healthcare system. Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Baystate Health, one of the largest healthcare organizations in the state, are collaborating to address the shortage of qualified medical assistants in Baystate’s facilities. Donnette Martin, Lead Instructor and Academic Coordinator at Holyoke Community College, says the program is based on a work-to-learn model. “The apprenticeship program is beneficial to Baystate, which is the driving force, and Holyoke becomes the facilitator educating the medical assistants in a short, intense program,” she says.
Baystate took the lead in getting approval for the program from the state of Massachusetts, ensuring that certain requirements were met. They then secured grant funding, began promoting the program and recruited both internal employees and members of the public.
“We started with 13 apprentices, then COVID hit,” Martin says. “We had a few who dropped, but we ended up with eight who successfully completed the program and passed the RMA exam. This year, each cohort is 10 students. We see candidates from various backgrounds; some are already employed at Baystate as personal care assistants or patient care technicians, and some have been out of school for 15 or 20 years. We also had students fresh out of university with a pre-med bachelor of science degree coming to get experience through this program to use as leverage for medical school or physician assistant school. So, we have participants with varying experiences.”
Once accepted into the program, all the apprentices are employees of Baystate, which pays for their books, uniforms, the entire course—even the fees for taking the RMA exam. Prior to their start date in the program, they go through an interview, meet their site supervisor and do some job shadowing to see what the practice looks like.
During the program, participants are paid for a full 40-hour week. “On instruction days, they’re in class from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” Martin says. Participants must complete a required number of hours of instruction, with a portion of those devoted to their externship, and then are assigned to a clinical setting where they will be doing their internship-externship. Once they have passed the RMA exam, they can go directly into the role of medical assistant with the practice or department in which they were trained.
“I’m certified through AMT as an allied health instructor,” Martin says. “AMT is key when it comes to providing the certification and the study materials, practice exams and so forth.”
Even though it’s a non-credit program, Martin says, they still follow the accredited program requirements so that they can meet AMT’s standards and get students prepared to pass the RMA exam. “I genuinely believe that for those program participants who are disenfranchised or marginalized, they have seen their fair share of hardship and struggles, and they understand that this is an opportunity to make something of themselves, to make themselves more marketable. This is a way of getting out of a tough situation that they’re in,” Martin says.
Martin says that, as a certified medical assistant, she strongly believes that there are individuals who have a desire to serve in the healthcare field. “Everybody deserves a chance to find their sense of purpose,” she says. “If we, as educators, can motivate students to find their sense of purpose, whether it’s as a medical assistant, respiratory therapist, phlebotomist or ECG technician, we should motivate them because the healthcare field is not going away. We can be a motivator in somebody’s corner.”
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Learn more about all of AMT’s certification routes and eligibility requirements in multiple allied health disciplines:
- Medical Assistant (RMA)
- Medical Laboratory Specialist (MLS)
- Phlebotomy Technician (RPT)
- Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT)
- Molecular Diagnostics Technologist (MDT)
- Medical Laboratory Assistant (CMLA)
- Medical Administrative Specialist (CMAS)
- Patient Care Technician (PCT)
- Dental Assistant (RDA)
- Allied Health Instructor (AHI)
- Certified Laboratory Consultant (CLC)