The Career Outlook for Medical Assisting
If you’re thinking of training to be a medical assistant, this could be a great career path to follow. To help you make an informed decision about pursuing a career in medical assisting we have attempted to answer the following questions:
- What does the future hold for the medical assistant profession?
- What trends can we expect to see in the employment environment and jobs market?
- What should you look for when choosing a medical assistant program?
- What should schools be doing to help their medical assisting graduates get the best jobs?
Number of Schools with Medical Assisting Graduates
Firstly, let’s look at how many schools offer medical assistant training. The total number of educational institutions providing 1 year certificate, 2 year diploma and Associate’s degree medical assisting programs rose from 1,840 in 2011 to 1,944 in 2013. The majority of programs were 2 year diplomas, followed by degrees. The biggest increase was in 2 year diplomas.
Although the number of schools offering medical assisting training has been increasing, the number of completions – that is the number of people graduating – has declined by quite a lot since 2011. There were overall 140,000 medical assisting graduates in 2011, of which 86 percent came from private for profits institutions, but in 2013 there were 35,000 fewer medical assisting graduates, 105,000 in total, which is a drop of 25 percent over the two year period. Most of this drop was in the private for profits sector.
The Drop in Medical Assistant Completions is Not Typical of the Market
The number of graduates from medical assisting programs declined a lot more than the number of graduates from all programs overall. Over the same time period, there was only a 1 percent drop in overall completion rates across all programs in the US. The completions for private for profit programs were down by 14 percent, but that was still much less than the medical assisting completion rate, which was down by 25 percent. This decline in completions could be attributed to a decline in the number of students enrolling on medical assistant programs in the first place.
Medical Assistant Placement Rates by School Size and Degree Level
Given that there are fewer medical assistants graduating, one would expect the job placement rates for successful graduates to be good overall, but that doesn’t appear to be the situation. There is no statistically significant difference in the placement rate between schools with under 100 and over 100 completions.
Looking at 1 and 2 year and degree programs, there is actually not much difference in placement rates. For 1 year certificates, the placement rate is between 71-72 percent. For diplomas it is slightly lower, between 68-71 percent. The placement rate for degrees is slightly higher at 73-74 percent, but it is important to bear in mind that a 2 year degree will take twice as long as a 1 year certificate to complete, with only a 1-2 percent increase in the job placement rate.
So, does the fact that there are fewer graduates and placement rates are still not great overall mean there is less demand for medical assistants? Really the question should be is the healthcare market growing in a way that will mean more demand for medical assistants in the future?
In answer to that, all estimates predict healthcare expenditures to rise and the healthcare industry is forecast to grow to a $5 trillion sector of the economy by 2022 and to grow faster than any other sector. One of the costs of health expenditure is labor, within which is medical assisting.
Healthcare Industry Trends
Due to various factors, such as an aging population, a rise in the amount of treatments available, and the increase in obesity, there will be an increase in the need for healthcare. With regards to the aging population, people over 60 cost the healthcare industry 2-3 times as much per year as working age people.
There will also be a huge increase in the number of people overall who have access to healthcare due to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. It is estimated that an additional 9 million people will gain access to healthcare, as well as all those who were on plans that didn’t cover them for pre-existing conditions.
Huge changes in the delivery of healthcare are required as a result of the Affordable Care Act, which is putting pressure on both costs and quality of outcomes. Importantly, many patients will increasingly receive treatment away from the hospital, in outpatient clinics, in doctor’s offices and at home, as hospitals are the highest cost venues in the healthcare system.
Another trend is that people are having to work to the top of their license. A doctor will only do things only a doctor can do and will delegate tasks that can be done by a nurse to a nurse, who will in turn delegate work that can be done by a medical assistant to a medical assistant.
This is resulting in more demand for lower skilled employees. There are also changes in what can be done by medical assistants.
Implications for Medical Assisting
This general increase in demand for healthcare means there will be more patients and thus more demand for medical assistants to take care of them. The shift in treatment to lower cost ambulatory venues such as doctor’s offices, where the majority of medical assistants are employed, also means an increased need for medical assistants.
Medical assistants have the advantages of being multi-skilled, with the flexibility to provide low level clinical care as well as perform administrative tasks, combined with relatively few regulatory constraints, which makes them appealing employees to healthcare providers.
Electronic patient records mean a growing demand for medical assistants with informatic skills. It is important to note that a certified medical assistant can be counted towards the Meaningful Use statistics, which means the demand for certified medical assistants will increase, as only those with certification will be counted.
With the focus on treatment away from hospitals, sicker patients requiring more care will be released to their homes, rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes, and will require someone with the right level of training to help them, so there could be an increase in medical assisting jobs in this field.
Medical assistants may also be in demand to fulfill non-traditional roles or those that were previously done by doctors or nurses, such as health coaches, health communicators and patient care coordinators.
As the delivery of healthcare changes there will be more demand for medical assisting skills, especially professionalism, clinical knowledge and informatics. With the prevalence of geriatric and obesity issues, medical assistants may choose to get specialized training in these areas to differentiate themselves in the job market.
The Medical Assistant Job Market
So what is happening in the medical assistant job market? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the demand for medical assistants will continue to grow at a similar rate of around 2.6-3 percent over the next decade. But this could be a conservative estimate according to data published by WANTED Analytics, which looks at job postings on the internet. This data shows the number of medical assistant job postings rose around 11.5 percent a year in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and this figure was around 12 percent for 2014 (at the time of the report). This suggests that the annual increase in demand for medical assistants is likely to be closer to 10 percent than 3 percent, which is a much bigger growth than in other job markets.
In the period 2011-2013 there was a 25 percent increase in job postings, while at the same time the number of completions dropped by around 25 percent. This gap between the number of medical assisting graduates and the number of jobs is a growing opportunity for medical assistants, as it means less competition for jobs and may even result in a shortage of workers with medical assisting skills.
Employment and Job Postings per Completion
Back in 2011 the market was quite saturated, with 1.1 job postings for every graduate, and 3.8 people working as medical assistants for every medical assisting graduate. From 2012 onward these numbers have risen, so the number of job postings per graduate increased to 1.3 in 2012, 1.8 in 2013 and was estimated to grow to 2.3 in 2014 at the time of the report, suggesting twice as many job postings as there are graduates.
It is important to remember that many of these job vacancies will be taken by people who are already working as medical assistants rather than new graduates, but even so the employment outlook for newly qualified medical assistants is much improved than it was only a few years ago. Figures for 2014 suggest there will be 6.4 people employed as medical assistants for every graduate that year, which is almost twice as many as back in 2011, which is good news for the overall employment prospects of medical assistants.
What Venues will Employ Medical Assistants in the Future?
So where exactly will medical assistants work in the future? Offices of Physicians are the largest venue for medical assistant employment today, and this is also one of the fastest growing sectors, forecast to increase 27 percent through 2022.
The venue with the fastest growth in medical assistant jobs is outpatient care centers, where jobs are likely to increase by 57 percent. Hospitals have the slowest growth of any venue, around 9 percent, although being the largest employers with 7,100 new jobs. It is worth knowing that although the majority of medical assistant jobs are in physician’s offices not hospitals, many physician’s offices are part of hospital chains, so the hospital HR department may post the jobs and handle the recruitment process.
The concept of patient centred medical homes means there will be satisfaction metrics for those providers, meaning that customer satisfaction will matter more than it did in the past. As a medical assistant is often the first person that a patient sees, their interpersonal and communication skills are very important in terms of satisfaction ratings for patient centred medical care facilities. Professionalism of medical assistants will become even more important.
With an increase in patient centred medical care providers, which are most likely to be ambulatory facilities where medical assistants are prevalent, there should be an increased demand for medical assistants.
What skills and qualifications are employers looking for in medical assistants?
Looking at the job postings data, a consistent requirement is proficiency in Electronic Medical Records. With the Meaningful Use regulations the ability to handle healthcare records is becoming increasingly important. Some employers are looking for specialist skill sets such as bilingual (Spanish), pediatrics, geriatrics and quality assurance. It is clear that employers require medical assistants with a combination of clinical skills and electronic administrative skills.
Professionalism is a key skill required in getting a job. Doctor’s offices may be willing to train someone that fits their environment, but they are unlikely to hire someone that lacks the professional skills needed to work in front of patients.
How important is Certification?
The data showed that many employers specifically wanted to hire medical assistants with some type of certification. The CMA credential (Certified Medical Assistant) was the most commonly required type, requested in 20,000 job postings, which is nearly 25 percent of postings that were looked at in the report. Other titles were also mentioned, such as RMA, NCMA and CCMA.
This suggests that being certified is becoming increasingly important for medical assistants. Medical assistants without credentials can improve their chances in the job market by finding out which exam they could take to get a certification. Some exams require graduation from a programmatically accredited program. However, the CCMA exam is open to those with experience in the field and who have graduated from an institutionally accredited program. It is worth taking test prep courses before taking the exam. Given the emphasis on certification these days, many schools include exam preparation courses as part of their medical assisting programs and encourage students to sit a certification exam upon graduation.
Certification is likely to become even more important due to the Meaningful Use requirements in the Affordable Care Act that stipulate only certified medical assistants will count towards Meaningful Use statistics. Doctor’s offices will be allowed to earn incentives for employing certified medical assistants, whereas uncertified medical assistants do not qualify them for the incentives.
Job Placement Rates
Schools display their job placement rates in their disclosure statements on their websites. For a graduate to be included in the statistics they must be employed in medical assisting or a closely related field. With fewer medical assisting graduates and more jobs available, the percentage of newly qualified medical assistants finding a job should be good. However, BLS statistics show only a very small correlation between placement rates and job openings. So what affects a program’s job placement rate?
What are the Effects of Campus Size on Placement?
The data showed that the median placement rate for medical assistant programs is similar regardless of school size at just under or over 70 percent. There is not much difference between the placement rates for an average school with only 25 students compared to an average school with over 300 students. Placement rates actually vary widely between schools of the same size, from around 68-80 percent. It appears that school size does not play a part in placement rates.
What Do the Top-Performing Medical Assistant Programs have in common?
It appears that the key to good job placement rates is good management, with well managed programs placing the most graduates. Gray Associates analyzed a selection of the top medical assistant schools – defined by a job placement rate of 80 percent or better – which varied in size, growth rate and geography. They concluded that “placement of medical assistants is a function of the quality of the school and its placement effort, not a function of the market in which the school participates”.
What are the Best Practices of the Medical Assistant Programs with the top placement rates?
So what do these best performing schools do to place a higher percentage of their medical assisting graduates than other schools? The report found comprehensive similarities in how these schools attract, train and place students and develop their students during the process.
It could be assumed that the better performing schools would be more selective in their admissions process, for example accepting only students with a high GPA or better SAT scores who would be most likely to graduate. Perhaps they screened for felonies and other criminal penalties, or looked for students from the most attractive neighborhoods. Actually the schools in this study had open admissions policies. Most did not use IQ screening and only one or two screened for felonies. They accepted students from all neighborhoods.
What the top schools had in common was they were good at orientation. For example, they ran sessions to identify a student’s personal purpose for becoming a medical assistant and some set specific goals for each student. They made the applicants aware of the program details to make sure they understood the academic requirements of the courses and how they could fit the courses into their schedules.
Before the students began any classes the schools exercised professionalism by telling them what they would need to do in order to get a job at the end of their training, such as writing a resume, cleaning up their online presence or removing tattoos. The emphasis was that preparing for the job hunt began on the first day at school and should not be left until just before or after graduation.
The best schools encouraged their students to take certification exams upon graduation and as such designed their programs to prepare students for success in the exams. The focus was on the academic quality of the programs even if they were not programmatically accredited, and there were high expectations placed on their faculty of performance in the certification exams.
Programmatic accreditation provides an external benchmark for academic programs and this appears to be particularly important for smaller schools where it can be hard to keep track of all the changes and requirements in medical assisting. If a program is accredited, the accrediting body keeps the school up to date on what needs to be changed within the program and provides a benchmark for the quality of the education.
The medical assisting schools with the best placement rates placed a strong emphasis on coaching, especially for at risk students. The teaching staff were professional and committed to their students, being demanding but at the same time caring for the individuals and having a belief in each student’s ability to succeed. It is very important that instructors believe in their students, who are often from disadvantaged backgrounds, have not done well in high school and have limited financial resources. Often students doubt their abilities and instructors play an important role in instilling the confidence they need to succeed in their studies and job hunt.
The top-performing schools were found to place an emphasis on the importance of professionalism right from the start of the program, not just towards the end in preparation for the externship. Professionalism includes appearance, communication, clothing, dentistry, hygiene and tattoo removal. One of the best schools offered free services to help students improve their chances of getting a job, such as a parlor that volunteered to remove tattoos and a dentist who could fix or replace teeth.
Many of the schools with the best placement rates helped students to use software to monitor and clean up their online presence, such as their Facebook pages, so that employers would not find evidence of inappropriate behaviors. One school even helped students to expunge criminal records such as arrest records and other incidents not leading to conviction, so these would not impede their ability to get a job.
The management of the externship program had a big impact on placement rates for the best-performing schools. Those schools with a lower percentage of graduates getting a medical assisting job had a few things in common. They often had externships that were run by the faculty, or the externship site wasn’t carefully monitored, or there was a lack of communication or discipline with externship sites that took students on as a form of free labor but didn’t go on to hire them.
In contrast, the better-performing schools ran a very organized and disciplined externship program in partnership with the faculty, excluding externship sites that provided a bad experience or didn’t go on to hire graduates. Sites were also advised on ways in which they could improve the externship experience for students.
Representatives from the placement organization visited the externship sites to meet the sponsors and students to assess how the externship was progressing. Students received instruction to prepare them for the externship experience in advance, so they knew what to expect, what the standards for success were and the importance of key things such as professionalism, punctuality and appearance.
Both in the job placement process and the externship process, the top medical assistant schools focused on matching students to the best suited jobs and employers. For instance, a student who struggled a bit under pressure would be matched to a less high paced job in an extended care environment, where they would fit in better than in a busy doctor’s office with many patients coming into the office and calling on the phone. The students that were best able to succeed in a high pressure environment were put into matching jobs. Those with less people skills were matched with more administrative or records keeping roles.
The final best practice was having a well managed advisory board made up of many people, where any employer could join. Often their meetings included over 20 employers. The other important aspect is that at each advisory board meeting careful notes were taken on what was said, so that at the start of each meeting there was a readjustment of the progress made against the suggestions from the previous meeting. This ensured that the advice of the advisory board was clearly listened to in the instruction and management of the medical assisting program.
What is the future for online medical assistant programs?
Advances in technology mean there are some cutting edge things happening in medical assistant education. As a result, online medical assisting programs are becoming more common, usually as a part of a traditional on-ground program, although some independent online programs are available. Schools are able to use the internet to provide online resources and materials to enhance the classroom experience.
Schools can provide resources where students can go to run simulations online or get extra practice in behaviors they have learned in a lab, which is particularly useful in preparation for an externship. For example, students may be able go through an online simulation of giving an x-ray.
The Future is Bright for Medical Assistants
To conclude, the future for medical assistants looks promising. There will be a growing need for healthcare, meaning more jobs for medical assistants. These jobs are most likely to be in doctor’s offices and ambulatory venues. Professionalism, Electronic Medical Records skills and certification will become increasingly important. Job placement rate should be considered when selecting a medical assistant program. The best schools have well-run externships, prepare their students for certification exams and help them in their job search by supporting them over the course of their training. If you want a rewarding career in the growing healthcare industry, medical assisting could be for you.
Comprehensive Research Study of the Medical Assisting Profession by Bob Atkins, CEO of Gray Associates