Well-positioned for the Future Demand for the Medical Assistant Is Only Expected to Rise

Connie Pettengill says that among the many expected highlights of a May 7 Medical Assistant Alumni Reunion at Springfield Technical Community College will be a video production saluting what is one of the oldest programs at the school.

The script was still a work in progress when Pettengill, chair of that program, spoke with The Healthcare News, but she thought she knew how it might start.

“First there was the doctor, then there was the nurse … but something was still missing,” she said, reciting the probable opening. “Until …”

She paused for a minute before continuing. “Until the medical assistant was trained to fill the void. Where nurses were trained to work as a bedside health practitioner, meaning inpatient care, the medical assistant is trained to work in an outpatient setting, an ambulatory care setting.”

This individual, which has historically been, and still is, in high demand, has a lengthy and varied job description, said Pettengill, noting that it includes both administrative and clinical work, with the list including everything from scheduling appointments to checking vital signs; from greeting patients to drawing blood; from coding and filling out insurance forms to authorizing prescription refills.

This extremely wide gamut of responsibilities has made the medical assistant an indispensable part of any physician’s office, said Pettengill, and a profession consistently ranked among the nation’s fastest-growing careers, as charted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And this explains why this program boasts 100{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} placement, and also why applications are up for the 25 to 30 or so seats available each year, said Pettengill. She noted that, while she and most others believe salary ranges for the position ($12 to $14 an hour to start) are too low for all the responsibilities taken on by the medical assistant, the overall rewards for such individuals — meaning everything from compensation to the satisfaction that comes from working in this capacity — are many and quite attractive.

“It’s an exciting, fast-paced field where every day is different,” she said, noting that work as a medical assistant can be, and has been, a stepping stone to other careers in health care, including nursing, radiography, work as a surgical technician, and many others.

A Shot in the Arm

Before she sat down to talk with The Healthcare News, Pettengill led an exercise in which medical assistant students injected one another with a saline solution.

“We all took turns,” she exlained, adding that this is the final step in a progressive course of study in administering injections. Students start by inserting needles into oranges, she continued, before moving on to simulators — usually a forearm with healthy veins — and, eventually, to one another.

This is just part of a curriculum that has evolved somewhat, especially with regards to technology such as the simulators, but is, at its core, quite similar to what was being used when STCC was started in 1967, in partitioned-off areas of buildings within the Springfield Armory complex where weapons were once produced.

The longevity of the program and its many traditions will be among the things celebrated at the alumni reunion, said Pettengill, noting that students from five different decades are expected to be in attendance. But the position of medical assistant, its importance, and its evolution will also be marked.

A former RN who has been a teacher and administrator at STCC for 25 years, Pettengill couldn’t pinpoint the exact origins of the medical assistant, but she did say that it has been a recognized medical profession for decades. The work has evolved, and the list of responsibilities has increased in response to changes in technology, approaches to health care, processes for determining how providers get paid for services, and priorities within the medical community, she explained, noting, as evidence, that duties now include everything from handling electronic medical records to teaching breast self-examination.

Now, as then, the key for the medical assistant is the ability to multi-task, she continued, noting that medical-assistant graduates have a number of options with regard to the setting in which they wish to work, including the traditional physicians’ offices, hospitals, labs, and other ambulatory care settings, among others.

“Like the nurse, the medical assistant is trained in multiple clinical skills,” she explained. “We do vital signs, taking temperature, pulse, and respiration; we can perform EKGs, we draw blood, give injections, assist with a variety of exams, such as pap smears, assist with physical examinations, and much more.

“However, in addition to the clinical component, medical assistants are trained in a host of administrative procedures,” she continued, “like how to schedule a patient, registering new patients, how to put in a charge … they’re even trained in how to run insurance claims.”

While the work of the medical assistant has evolved, so too has STCC’s program, the largest accredited offering in the area, said Pettengill. What started in 1967 as a one-year certificate program was soon expanded to a two-year associate’s degree offering. In 2005, however, in response to changes within the academic community and, more specifically, a desire to compete with schools offering one-year programs — as well as a desire to meet physicians’ offices’ requests for qualified workers — STCC introduced one- and two-year options for those seeking to enter the profession.

The two programs are identical in their first-year offerings, she explained, noting that the one-year program is capped by a five-week ‘externship.’ Meanwhile, year two, for those who desire an associate’s degree, includes a number of general-education courses and additional, or advanced, medical-assistant classes. Recent history has shown that that both options have led to full placement for participants who finish, with little or no difference in salary and other compensation.

“We’re promoting the associate’s degree program for those who want to advance their opportunities and, for example, become an office manager or work in pharmaceutical sales,” she explained. “In the associate’s degree program, the emphasis is on specialties and on management skills.”

And those who do enter the field can be fairly certain to enjoy job security, said Pettengill, noting that demand for medical assistants is high, and will only continue to increase as the American population ages and people live longer, thus increasing the need for health care and those who provide it.

This phenomenon is contributing to interest in the field that runs across the board, she continued, meaning young people, older individuals, those looking for new and better career options, and other constituencies.

“All of the above,” she said. “I have students ranging in age from 18 to maybe 52. Some are seeking new careers, and others are in job retraining because the manufacturing plant they were working in shut down. Some are high-school grads.”

And once they’ve entered the medical-assistant field, individuals have gone on to other health care professions, she said, noting that the myriad options available to those who choose this path, and the stepping-stone nature of the work, will be in display at the reunion.

Indeed, three individuals will be singled out for recognition at the event — one who has been on the profession for 25 years, another who has gone on to be an office manager of Hampden County Physicians, one of the largest physician groups in the area, and still another who, after graduating from the medical assistant program, went on to be an RN.

Roll the Credits

The diversity represented by these honorees, as well as the video still in production, should provide a compelling life story, if you will, of the medical assistant.

It’s a story with several compelling chapters, but some that are yet to be written.

And they all come back to that probable video opening — about the doctor, the nurse, and the fact that something was missing, until…