Qualified medical assistants can help primary care practices become more efficient, reduce patient wait times and streamline patient processing, which ultimately increase patient satisfaction.
Qualified medical assistants can help primary care practices become more efficient, reduce patient wait times and streamline patient processing, which ultimately increase patient satisfaction. They can perform a vast array of clinical, administrative and general duties, ranging from diagnostic tests and laboratory services, maintaining electronic health records, explaining treatment procedures and providing health coaching to scheduling appointments and monitoring reimbursements.
But to perform these duties competently, medical assistants need to be rigorously trained. The reality is many are not, even if they are credentialed. As the manager for staffing services for a county medical society, I work closely with primary care practices to help them meet their staffing needs, including hiring qualified medical assistants. I have seen firsthand the significant variation in medical assistant training and credentialing, and the resulting skills and knowledge. That means primary care practices need to be astute in their hiring of medical assistants, seeking those who are well-trained and highly qualified.
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While it is considered a “soft” skill, one of the most important qualifications to look for in a medical assistant is the ability to communicate clearly, effectively and consistently. This is increasingly crucial as patients often see the medical assistant more often than the physician, and may not understand the difference between the medical assistant and other clinical staff.
Other soft-but vitally important-skills include the following:
All of these skills require rigorous training. Because assessing these skills can be challenging, primary care practices should look closely at a candidate’s training and understand the difference between medical assistant credentials. Start by asking for a copy of the candidate’s transcript, then inquire about how the education and training they received can be applied to specific tasks. Find out the depth of their training in competency areas important to your patient care goals.
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Next, ask if the candidate has completed an externship, which should include a minimum of 160 hours in an outpatient setting. (Some programs don’t even require hands-on training and can be completed entirely online.) Request a copy of the externship evaluation, which will reveal if the candidate is well-prepared.
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Ask for specifics about the candidate’s training. I have found that the most impressive candidates are likely to have undergone a rigorous process that includes graduation from a college-level training program of at least one academic year and accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Further, an ideal candidate will have passed a rigorous, secure exam that meets physician-quality standards (for example, one that uses the National Board of Medical Examiners for test development and administration). The credentialing body should be accredited under an independent, highly regarded standard, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Standard 17024, which ensures quality, efficiency and safety.
The Certified Medical Assistant American Association of Medical Assistants credential (CMA (AAMA)), is the only credential that meets all of these standards. While all of these differentiators of a quality credentialing process are key, the security of the exam in particular often is underappreciated. If an exam is not secure, there is no guarantee the candidate took the exam or took it without the help of outside resources.
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The CMA (AAMA) exam is a high-security, computer-based exam delivered through the same network used for the United States Medical Licensing Exam and other high-stakes healthcare exams.
A plus is that medical assistants who come to a job with more rigorous training may complete orientation more quickly, which can lead to lower training costs.