Medical assistants play a very valuable role, but they are NOT nurses !
Medical assistants play a very valuable
role, but they are NOT nurses !

Other Professions Medical Assistants Can Transfer Into

The healthcare industry is doing well – at least as far as job growth is concerned. While other industries have been laying people off (if not closing down altogether), healthcare is thriving, by leaps and bounds in some cases. That includes the demand for lower-level medical personnel like medical assistants.

It’s not hard to see why the demand is high. Lower-level medical personnel aren’t paid as much as higher-end positions (like doctors and nurses); also, they are more disposable, aren’t given much power, and can be expected to be totally compliant.

This is in keeping with healthcare being like the military. Just as in the military, there is a well-defined hierarchy of power and authority. Decisions trickle down in a one-way, no-need-to-question-things paradigm which, to some extent, favors patients. After all, the last thing you want at, say, the ER is for medical personnel to do whatever feels right, after getting a job for which there wasn’t a high set of qualifying standards to meet.

It’s comforting to know, in fact, that all medical personnel operate within well-diagrammed/defined parameters, rules, policies and procedures.

It’s also good to know that there is, ultimately, a highly-trained professional in charge (usually a doctor or a nurse), someone who knows what he/she is doing, can be held accountable for all major decisions, and is charged with keeping a close eye on everyone else under his/her command—in essence, holding them accountable.

Fortunately, medical personnel generally have well-detailed, specific roles. Those “roles” closely hinge on specific skills each person on the totem pole is supposed to have. A nurse has every right to expect, for example, that LPNs or MAs under her command are qualified to take vitals, update medical histories, and, if necessary, draw blood samples.

LPNs and MAs, furthermore, know that an RN out-ranks them and, therefore, they are not supposed to question or fail to act on his/her orders. By the same token, CNAs, orderlies and, in some cases, PCTs have to take orders and directions from LPNs and MAs. Then again, in some settings, LPNs and PCTs out-rank MAs.

As for LPNs (also called Licensed Vocational Nurses or VCNs), well, they are ideally only out-ranked by RNs (and people above RNs, like NPs, PAs and doctors) but, if things are set up correctly, by no one else.

In spite of all the politics and power dynamics in healthcare settings, not only is the need for medical assistants growing steadily but the profession seems to be riding only high waves right now. This may be deceptive, though, for a number of not-necessarily-clear-to-most-people reasons.

In fact, there are some significant shortcomings and deficiencies within the medical assistant job/career framework which, if not addressed appropriately, may result in the job of a medical assistant being re-structured, re-defined or altogether dismantled (no doubt replaced by a similar position, most probably carrying another title).

Just in case these deficiencies and shortcomings aren’t adequately addressed and fixed, it would behoove medical assistants to be prepared to move into other jobs/careers that either require the same or almost the same skills, training and education. The paper has a three-fold purpose:

1. Let medical assistants know that their job/career may either be completely re-structured or possibly be phased out if the many deficiencies and shortcomings alluded to are not fixed.

2. Give medical assistants a list of jobs/careers that they can transfer into, should major changes (possibly involving the removal of the position of MA altogether) come about in the field.

3. Finally, give a concise explanation as to why MA jobs/careers stand on precarious grounds.

Why Medical Assistant May Have To Transfer Into Other Careers

Simply put, the medical assistant role, while it serves a very useful purpose right now and is practiced by a highly-gifted, dedicated and well-trained set of professionals, has some serious flaws, deficiencies and shortcomings which, if not adequately fixed and addressed, may end up blowing up in a number of different ways.

Perhaps examples may help shed light on the problems at hand. What happened to the profession of “massage therapist” is something worth alluding to. Not too long ago, the profession was poorly-defined, not-well-supervised, and neither licensed nor certified. As a consequence, some people took over the profession and used it in unethical and highly unprofessional ways. In essence, they offered prostitution services under the guise of “massage therapy.”

Needless to say, those misuses gave the profession a black eye. In order to clean up the nonsense (and save the profession), many states passed legislation requiring licensing for massage therapists. As a consequence, massage therapists had to obtain a formal education, pass tests, and submit to well-specified criteria in order to qualify for the privilege of being a legitimate “massage therapist.”.

These moves made sure that people who claimed to be massage therapists were true health professionals with reputations to uphold, regulations to meet, and a new set of ethics that pretty much saved the profession.

Another example that may be alluded to is that of Licensed Practical Nurse. There is a move under way right now to altogether get rid of LPNs. One of the reasons given (even if unofficially) is that LPNs are merely “nurses” that didn’t want to spend the extra time and money to get all the education and training that RNs are required to get—in other words, yet another group of people who were looking for a quick, easy and inexpensive (compared to RNs) way to enter the healthcare field.

If you look at the two professions, you will note that they have much in common. Both have to take a nationally-supervised/sponsored exam which tests extensively their knowledge of all the life sciences. LPNs, however, in preparation for their job, concentrate more on the hands-on aspects (thus justifying the term “vocational”) of the profession, thereby by-passing much of the academics RNs have to endure.

In fact, some LPN classes/programs don’t count (credit wise) toward associate and bachelor’s degrees in nursing. LPNs, as a matter of fact, were often graduates of on-the-job training programs, though this practice has grown out of favor lately. The industry now favors college-program-graduated nursing students—preferably with a BS. Yes, you can still take the RN national exam with just an associate’s but that door may one day be closed also.

Because of the impetus to get rid of this profession, LPNs should also be considering what other profession within healthcare they might gravitate into should it become necessary.

Now, to get back to the MA dilemma: Here are some of the deficiencies and shortcomings that the medical assistant profession is presently burdened with:

  • MAs are being given too many responsibilities they don’t have either the training, education or maturity within the industry to do without legitimate fears of significant errors.
  • MAs often obtain only 6 months to 1 year’s education and training before being fed (metaphorically speaking) to the lions. Even those MAs that come with an AS spend only half that time (approximately) taking life science courses.
  • MAs get very limited hands-on training in order to obtain their certificate or diploma. Not that more even when they get an AS.
  • Most of the “experience” MAs can boast of come from on-the-job training. In other words, after they obtained an education. In contrast, nurses come into the job with extensive (both in quantity and quality) “clinical” experience.
  • MA’s roles are not as well defined as those of other healthcare professionals.
  • MAs have little opportunity to progress in their profession, except in mostly lateral ways (i.e., by obtaining “Certified” or “Registered” or “Clinical” additional titles).
  • Some MAs have diplomas/certificates from online schools. Unless that school was accredited and included some hands-on clinicals (even if not on their facilities), such an educational background may not be acceptable to many employers.
  • The MA job market is heavily saturated in some areas, especially in many of our major cities—there is, therefore, a glut of unemployed MAs in those areas.
  • Too many MAs are being graduated by unscrupulous technical/trade schools, especially in large cities, in spite of there not being a demand for MAs in the vicinity of many of these schools.
  • The accusation has been made that some MAs simply wanted a quick, inexpensive, and easy path into the healthcare industry and, so, may not have the commitment, drive and zeal for this kind of work, not having invested the time, money and effort that other healthcare professionals (like RNs) invested.
  • The MA profession should, ideally, be licensed just like RNs and LPNs, preferably requiring a nationally-administered exam.
  • MAs are too often referred to as “Nurse,” sometimes with the encouragement and approval of MAs—for the record, this isn’t just inaccurate, it’s illegal.
  • There are some professionals who want to get rid of the job of “medical assistant”—either that, or they want it to be greatly re-defined, re-structured, or altogether made more adequate for today’s legally, ethically and politically conscientious environment.

Technical Skills a Medical Assistant Needs To Possess and Add To

One of the troubling things about the medical assistant profession is that there isn’t officially a nationally-accepted list of skills that every MA is supposed to possess—in fact, it’s fair to say that the skills that MAs possess in different jurisdictions can be particularly disparate. While it’s true that the same may be said about other healthcare careers, it’s particularly true about medical assistants.

Nurses, for example, can have skills in one jurisdiction that other nurses in other jurisdictions may lack, but, in most instances, those additional skills come under the rubric of lateral or vertical promotions that usually carry a different title than just “RN.” For example, a nurse that has extensive experience with “preemies” probably holds the title “Neonatal Nurse”.

A nurse specializing in anesthetizing patients is called a “Nurse Anesthetist.” Nurses that can prescribe medications and treat patients directly (without having a doctor hold their hands directly) is usually referred to as a “Nurse Practitioner”.

The lines, though, become somewhat blurred for medical assistants as they gain new skills. Yes, medical assistants can specialize but they don’t necessarily get an official title that gets the same respect, status and increase in power/pay that nurses get when they specialize.

For medical assistants, in fact, the only title upgrades that are officially recognized and accepted everywhere are “Registered”, “Certified” and “Clinical.” These, however, must meet the qualifications criteria set forth by private health organizations (e.g., AAMA, etc.)—it is up to each employer, though, whether they will accept and honor such.

These title-enhancement words can catapult MAs into higher paying and more-responsibility conferring roles but the profession still lacks the clearly-demarcated upward/lateral career progress privileges readily available not only in nursing but also in the field of physicians.

This isn’t a matter of “titles” though, but of specific skills that a healthcare provider has or doesn’t have. Simply put, the more skills you have, the more valuable you become, the more you can do, the less direct supervision you need, and, as consequence, the higher you move up in status, capacity, and recognition.

Yet another thing that proves MAs don’t get the same respect and recognition that nurses get is the fact that when a nurse earns a new higher-placed title, he/she also gets elevated in the totem pole of power and authority.

For example, an RN with a Bachelor of Science in nursing is above a nurse with only an Associate of Science; by the same token, a nurse with a Master of Science generally has more power/authority than a nurse with a BS. At the top of this pole of power/influence (as well as pay), sits the Nurse Practitioner, who is presided over, in general, only by a Physician’s Assistant (PA) or a physician.

Medical assistants, in stark contrast, pretty much stay where they are in terms of power and authority, although their pay scale may (and should) go up as they advance in training. In general, a medical assistant may outrank orderlies, CNAs, and other less-experienced/trained MAs.

Since they may be viewed in some places as being on equal footing with Patient Care Technicians and Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), they may be placed over or under these other professionals. The point is that being “Certified”, “Registered” or “Clinical” does not necessarily mean that they are granted a higher status based on these new titles over any other professional that wouldn’t have been under them to begin with.

Of course, each healthcare facility has the right to set up its own power structure but let’s be clear that this isn’t just about a haphazard “pecking order”. Rather, this is about making it clear who takes orders from whom and who is qualified to do what during each medical situation.

At the top, of course, are physicians, who then pass on their orders to PAs and NPs (Nurse Practitioners). Regular RNs are the next ones in charge. Everyone else takes orders from them. Some of those supporting-role professionals are Licensed Practical Nurses, Patient Care Technicians (PCTs), Medical Assistants, and Certified Nurse Assistants (CNAs).

Here are some of the most important skills and responsibilities medical assistants should have or be working to obtain in order to qualify for a vertical or lateral career upgrade move:

  • Gathering, recording and updating patients’ medical histories.
  • Relating, explaining and answering questions regarding medical matters to patients and family members.
  • Getting patients ready for diagnostic procedures and exams.
  • Giving patients medications. Although generally the realm of nurses, MAs will sometimes be asked (usually at the behest of a nurse) if they can give patients certain meds.
  • Performing general medical procedures, including the following:
    1. Obtaining vitals: blood pressure, weight, temperature, oxygen levels, etc.
    2. Possibly running basic tests on patient specimens, being sure to record the results of such on patient charts.
    3. Getting a blood specimen (phlebotomy), as well as other types of specimens (stool, urine, buccal smear, etc.).
    4. Giving a patient an electrocardiogram (EKG) and entering the results into the records for the doctor’s perusal.
    5. Assisting in putting on fresh wound dressings, including bandaging, casts, splints, etc..
    6. Assisting in the removal of sutures, stitches and staples.
  • Assisting patients and family members with administrative tasks—e.g., filling out forms.
  • Managing and updating appointment schedules.
  • Dealing with insurance companies—addressing discrepancies, making sure reimbursement forms are submitted, confirming patient insurance coverage, etc.
  • Gathering and entering patient info data into electronic medical records or EMR systems.
  • Perform office management skills, as needed.
  • Possessing general medical/clinical skills, abilities, competencies & training:
    1. Exceptional knowledge of anatomy & physiology.
    2. Familiarity with infectious ailments (and the microorganisms that cause them) & contagious disease containment protocols.
    3. Ability to recognize symptoms that need to be taken most seriously when assessing patient status (e.g., trouble breathing, a high temperature, losing consciousness, chest pain/discomfort, bluish or discolored appearance, disorientation, etc.).
    4. Familiarity with as many of the many machines, instruments & devices used at healthcare facilities as possible.
    5. Great communication & listening skills, including the ability to accurately and promptly follow doctor’s/nurse’s instructions.
    6. Familiarity with sterilization techniques, protocols & tools.
    7. Ability to administer meds/treatments topically, parenterally, orally, or rectally.
    8. Ability to safely dispose of bodily samples & fluids, used dressings, syringes and other types of bio-hazardous waste.
    9. Ability to administer injections & medications expeditiously, safely and exactly.
    10. Capacity to draw blood painlessly & while avoiding complications.
    11. Ability to properly collect, label & secure bodily fluid samples.
    12. Capacity to maintain medical control & equipment standards.
    13. Ability to accurately document, explain & keep records of recommended medical tests.
    14. Willingness to work with insurance companies.
    15. Taking & updating medical histories.
    16. Performing CPR (when & if necessary).
    17. Capacity to keep appointment records updated.
    18. Ability to perform an EKG.
    19. Willingness to handle correspondence & answer phones.
    20. Triaging patients & explaining procedures.
    21. Foreign language capacity, if any.
    22. Ability to interpret for the deaf, if any.
    23. Ability to assist with minor surgery.

Careers Medical Assistants Can Realistically Transfer Into If Necessary

The following is a list of professions medical assistants can think about transferring into if, for whatever reason, the MA profession runs into difficulty, is substantially re-structured, or worse yet, is phased out altogether. As a general rule anyway, all professionals in all industries need to have a career backup plan—i.e., “what type of job would you try to transfer into should the job/career you hold now suddenly be eliminated or altered in such a way that you could no longer stay in it?”

You may think that this isn’t such a big deal but try asking airport security personnel before September 11, 2001, if they thought that they had job security. Actually, it appeared as if they did. Then, all of a sudden, one major event changed everything and thousands of these people were out of not only their “jobs” but of their careers.

Well, there are some experts who opine that the MA profession may be headed in that same direction, albeit for different reasons.

Regardless of whether you agree that the MA profession is in any kind of precarious situation, it would behoove you, if you are an MA, to keep your options open. Accordingly, here are some positions that you can realistically transfer into without having to get too much more education and while, in most cases, having the knowledge, training and education you have right now be counted toward what you would need for these other professions.

Now, some of these other professions sort of overlap or they go under different titles but the point is that they require approximately the same amount of time to prepare for as medical assistant – some more and others about the same. It must also be noted that some of these professions are as much a separate “skill” as they are a potential job/career.

Take phlebotomy, most upper-level healthcare providers are expected to know how to draw blood but there are some healthcare professionals who do only that function at work. They’re called “professional phlebotomists.”

Other jobs/skills over-lapping models include taking X-rays, giving EKGs, or helping with a catheterization procedure.

Without further ado, here is the list:

  • Health Information & Medical Records Technicians/Coordinator
  • Physical Therapy Assistants/Aides & Technicians
  • Licensed Practical Nurse & Licensed Vocational Nurse
  • Registered Nurse (RN)
  • Phlebotomist
  • Dental Assistant & Technician
  • Medical Billing and Coding
  • Pharmacy Assistant & Technician
  • Dental Hygienist
  • Veterinary Assistant & Technician
  • Clinical Research Assistant
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer & Mammography Ultrasound Tech
  • Clinical Laboratory Technician
  • Emergency Medical Technician
  • Radiology Technologist & Assistants
  • Medical Writer
  • Occupational Therapy Aide & Rehabilitation Tech
  • Phlebotomist
  • Surgical Technologist & Operating Room Assistant
  • Psychiatric Aide & Behavioral Health Technician
  • Medical Transcriptionist
  • Laboratory Animal Caretaker & Animal Care Tech
  • Massage Therapist
  • Dispensing Optician & Optician’s Assistant
  • Cardiovascular, Cardiopulmonary & Cardiac Catheterization Assistants
  • Medical Equipment Preparer
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologist
  • Paramedic
  • Anesthesia Technician & Anesthesiologist’s Assistant
  • Audiology Technician
  • Computer Tomography (CT or CAT) Scan Technician
  • Critical Care Tech
  • Clinical Imaging Specialist & Medical Imaging Tech
  • Mammogram Technologist (see Clinical Imaging Specialist)
  • Patient Care Technician (PCT)
  • Plastic Surgeon’s Assistant
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) Tech
  • Registered Vascular Technologist (see Cardiovascular Tech)
  • Regulatory Medical Writer
  • Respiratory Care Tech
  • Echo Technologist
  • Endoscopy Technologist
  • IV Technologist
  • Nuclear Medicine Tech & X-ray Technologist
  • Polysomnography Technician
  • Public Health Inspector & State Health Inspector
  • Blood Bank Tech
  • Dialysis Technologist
  • Dietetic Tech/Assistant
  • Medical Writer

Conclusion

While the job of a medical assistant may be a hot one right now, it has some problems and deficiencies that may turn out to be the profession’s Achilles’ heel in the end. While no one can predict the future (and the fact remains that the MA profession may linger on as it is right now for years to come), there is a possibility that the profession will either undergo major changes or altogether be phased out in time.

In preparation for that possibility, MAs should seriously consider having a back-up plan if they intend to make medical assisting their last-stop career move. To that end, this paper has presented a number of viable possibilities so that MAs can comfortably and confidently transfer to another medical profession, should their present job no longer be available in the future.

Article Written by Nikki

My name is Nikki and I am a twenty-something Medical Assisting student who resides in the suburbs of Chicago, IL.

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