There is no end to the challenges providers and clinic managers face when running an outpatient practice. Successful organizations are always on the lookout for opportunities to reduce costs, streamline patient care, and improve efficiency. Because payroll is often one of the most expensive ongoing costs for an organization, finding the most efficient uses for existing staff is also a high priority.
For many outpatient clinics, medical assistants (MAs) are highly attractive team members. As a group, they’re easier to hire compared with licensed professionals who require more pre-employment training. MAs are also typically low-cost staff additions. These factors have led to an explosion in MA hiring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of MA jobs will grow by 23% over the next decade, which is much higher than average. With so many upsides, providers should look for ways to maximize the value of these allied healthcare workers.
MAs work as unlicensed healthcare professionals who are supervised by physicians, physician assistants, or nurse practitioners under typical conditions. During an ordinary workday, MAs escort patients to the exam room, take and record vitals, and log the chief complaint in the medical record. Depending on state regulations, some MAs can also perform a limited set of clinical tasks, like blood draws or laboratory tests. However, some clinics experiment with new ways to better employ these workers to suit their overall practice goals.
Some MAs work as health navigators helping patients overcome obstacles within the healthcare system to ensure timely diagnosis and treatment. This approach could be particularly beneficial for clinics that serve large numbers of non-native patients, where economic and cultural barriers frequently impede care. MAs working as health navigators could assist these patients access resources as they move across the continuum of care.
Panel managers examine a provider’s patient roster looking for care gaps and contacting patients who need follow-up. These workers can also identify at-risk patients and encourage them to follow their provider’s established treatment plan. MAs filling a panel manager role can help patients stay healthier. They also allow providers to practice preventive care rather than merely reacting to existing health issues.
In many instances, payers like Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance set reimbursement rates based on how providers meet specific quality metrics. As a result, accurately measuring these metrics and working to improve them has become an essential revenue-supporting activity. Some clinics have started using MAs in quality improvement roles. These workers access data and produce reports on quality measures that clinical teams can then act on.
Other organizations are cross-training their MAs to fill a variety of clinical roles like phlebotomists, pharmacy technicians, limited license radiology technicians, receptionists, and medical records clerks. Rather than hiring specialized staff members who are more expensive and less flexible, providers can instantly redeploy a team of cross-trained MAs to meet a clinic’s changing needs.
Of course, this new approach is not without its challenges. Many MAs join staff with very little training. Even most credentialed MAs, who typically receive some post-secondary education, won't have the existing skills or training to take on these new positions immediately. That means organizations need to provide some on-the-job training to move existing staff members into reimagined roles.
Scope of practice questions add another layer of complexity to this project. States regulate MAs very differently. Some place strict restrictions on the tasks these workers can and cannot do. Other states leave MA duties up to the physician's discretion. That inconsistency can make some providers hesitant to expand their MAs' existing responsibilities. Despite these concerns, the potential benefits of reimagining the MA's traditional role are too significant to ignore.
Organizations looking to expand their MA teams' role will benefit from hiring the highest-quality candidates. Experienced MAs and MAs who've earned respected credentials will be more capable of taking on the new challenges that come with expanded job responsibilities. Furthermore, MAs who are also committed team players are more willing to think outside the box and bring greater value to their role.
Med-X Staffing Service can help your organization access the best pool of potential MA talent. Paula Purdy CMA (AAMA), our director of clinic services, has spent her career working in the MA community and understands the vital role they play in healthcare organizations. If you'd like to learn more about our services, contact us today at (503) 922-1393 or fill out the contact page on our website.