Academic journal article Journal of Allied Health

The Expanding Roles and Occupational Characteristics of Medical Assistants: Overview of an Emerging Field in Allied Health

Academic journal article Journal of Allied Health

The Expanding Roles and Occupational Characteristics of Medical Assistants: Overview of an Emerging Field in Allied Health

Article excerpt

Medical assistants are the fastest growing segment of primary care teams. Remarkably little is known about this emerging workforce. In this report, we present information based on a literature review, analysis of secondary workforce data, and interviews with key experts in the field that aim to highlight the basic aspects of medical assistants and discuss issues that need to be addressed in this rapidly growing occupation in the allied health workforce. Critical policy issues are raised about the future impact of a largely unregulated workforce as well as the potential impact of this field on other allied health professions. J Allied Health 2006; 35:233-237.

MEDICAL ASSISTANTS (MAs) represent a large component of the health care workforce in the United States, with an estimated 376,300 individuals occupying positions in outpatient clinics and private physician offices.1 MAs are integral to outpatient health care because of their presence in large numbers and their role in medical office administration. Despite the steady increase in the number of MAs in recent years, little is known about the pathway of entry into the field, the extent and depth of training, the variety of tasks performed in different practice settings, the rates of turnover, and the reasons for exiting the field. As MAs become an increasingly significant component of the health care team, it will be important to define their skills, experiences, and clinical roles more clearly and to advance their occupational activities and contributions in systematic ways.

This report summarizes current information and knowledge in the field of medical assisting and raises critical policy issues and implications for the workforce. To study some of the trends in the MA workforce, we undertook a literature review of published articles on the role of MAs using the MEDLINE database from 1970 to 2004, interviewed key experts in the field of medical assisting, and reviewed workforce data from a variety of national sources. We identified 18 articles describing the role MAs play in particular practice settings where added benefits to having such assistants were noted.2-19 We examined six issues most relevant to the field of medical assisting: scope of practice, training pathways, certification requirements, accreditation requirements, economic incentives, and regulatory mechanisms. We argue that given the rapid growth of MAs in the health care workforce, the lack of standards and consistency in training and scope of practice as well as the potential need for certification and licensure should be addressed.


MAs are multiskilled health care practitioners trained to assist physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners with administrative and/or clinical duties in an ambulatory care setting. Interestingly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, MAs are the occupational group with the greatest number of individuals working in outpatient primary care settings, not licensed nurses or physicians.1,20 Most MAs work in primary care settings; in 2003, 75% of all MAs worked in physicians' offices or ambulatory health care centers.1 In comparison, only 9% of registered nurses and 13% of licensed vocational nurses worked in this sector.20

There has been a steady increase in the number of MAs in the health care workforce over the past decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects medical assisting to be the fastest growing health-related occupation over the next 7 years21 (Figure 1). An expected 63% increase in the number of people entering the field represents the fastest growth in any occupation in the United States between 2002 and 2012.21

Blayney et al. described the growth of multiskilled practitioners, including MAs, more than 15 years ago.22 They described the growing complexity of skills being taught, growth in the number of formal educational programs, and increased on-the-job training largely brought on by an era of cost containment. …

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