New program aims to build medical assistants pipeline

Middletown's Community Health Center (CHC) has a history of training medical professionals, from nursing and psychology residency programs to its federally backed workforce development programs aimed at helping other health centers around the country. In April, CHC marked a new endeavor — graduating the inaugural class from a new medical assistants training program it developed with a Colorado health center. Q&A talks with Dr. Mark Splaine, CHC's education director, about the school, called the National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement (NIMAA), which will have classes in five states.

Q: What healthcare settings is NIMAA geared toward and where are classes taught?

A: The seven-month NIMAA program is focused specifically on preparing medical assistants for practice in federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and high-performing primary care organizations. It includes online courses and in-person learning in the primary care clinic.

Online courses include the standard topics found in all medical assistant education programs as well as topics such as health coaching, inter-professional teams, panel management and quality improvement; these latter courses are included specifically to help students become prepared for practicing in the current and future delivery of primary care.

In-person training occurs at CHC for learning about skills (four hours every other week) as well as working with experienced instructors (12 hours per week). Finally, there is a weekly one-hour seminar that students are required to attend; this uses videoconferencing technology and can be done from any location.

Q: Various higher-ed institutions have medical assistant programs in the state. Why is NIMAA needed and how will it compare to others?

A: As a new school in Connecticut, NIMAA views itself as a learning institute focused on an innovative approach to medical assistant training. NIMAA will improve the delivery of healthcare to disadvantaged populations by providing a better trained workforce and improve the income and career possibilities of entry-level healthcare staff.

Medical assistant education programs currently available in the state do not train students for CHC's patient-centered, team-based model of primary care. These programs typically include their clinical training at the end of the program rather than integrating this experience throughout the program. NIMAA provides its students clinical experience as a member of a high-functioning primary care team throughout the course; this allows them to apply their knowledge and gain confidence in their skills, while working with the support of an experienced preceptor.

NIMAA's tuition of $6,000 plus fees is designed to be affordable for an entry-level position so as to avoid a high debt load — a common issue for students who attend for-profit programs that may charge $20,000 or more.

Q: Is there a medical assistant shortage in the state?

A: Medical assistants are in high demand. In 2014, there were approximately 591,000 employed medical assistants in the United States. The projected growth in demand in the next decade is enormous: a 29 percent growth rate from 2012 to 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

FQHCs are a good place to start with a new approach for medical assistant education as federal regulations are driving health center practices into team-based care. More than 1,350 FQHCs nationwide provide health services to more than 24 million patients each year in over 9,000 clinic locations.

In these FQHCs, virtually every medical provider is paired with a full-time medical assistant, and some practices require a higher ratio of medical assistants to primary care providers in order to achieve efficient and effective operations.

Q: What are the career prospects for medical assistants?

Career prospects are excellent for medical assistants. Being a medical assistant is a rewarding career unto itself in health care. CHC has many medical assistants who have been part of primary care teams for more than 10 years.

Medical assistants are often the key member of the healthcare team because they interact a great deal with patients and families. Their work augments the work of other team members. This enhances the ways in which the team can address the needs of patients.

In addition, the medical assistant role can be a place to begin other healthcare careers such as nursing, social work, behavioral health or public health. NIMAA students are encouraged to think of the career as a ladder on which they will always be seeking new heights and responsibilities no matter what role they are performing in health care.