The unlikely heroes of American health care do not have fancy degrees. They are ordinary workers with high school degrees who can do their jobs with as little as an additional year of training. On average, they earn between $30,000 and $40,000 annually. Many have never worked in health care before. They work as employees, and almost all are female. They are the indispensable go to workers of the new American health care system because they are inexpensive to use and they can be plugged into many different workflows within a medical setting. They are medical assistants.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical assistants perform both administrative and clinical duties under the direction of a physician. In 2014 there were almost 600,000 medical assistants employed in the United States, earning on average fifteen dollars an hour. Most of these work in physician offices, primarily in ambulatory care settings. Three states—California, Florida, and Texas—employ almost a third of all U.S. medical assistants. Every health care delivery organization in the Boston area now leans heavily on these workers to meet their production demands.
Medical assistants are a highly practical, cost-effective disruption that makes doctors’ lives easier, nurses able to upskill and do more, and patients gain easier access to and reliability around their care. No other workers in health care are involved in such a wide array of duties. Physicians increasingly rely on them as their jack of all trades support staff. Many patients in primary care now have more face and phone time with an MA than they do with their primary care doctor, who increasingly is hidden from our view, funneled towards the most complex patient visits coming through their door each day.
Beyond their direct interface with patients, medical assistants also support the quality reporting and performance measurement work in today’s doctors’ offices, often making sure quality data are complete and accurate within electronic health records, tracking down needed information, steering patients to required services, and getting performance data to the various insurance plans and accrediting agencies. This work is increasingly important for health care organizations to get paid, and for patients to get better care.