Medical assistants recognized in October

Medical assistants are among the most visible health care workers in patients’ lives, but many people don’t know who they are or what they do.

Medical assistants are trained to perform administrative and clinical tasks to keep medical offices running smoothly.

They may handle insurance billing or patient information management, but most work on the clinical intake side, weighing and checking blood pressure and temperature of patients, or assisting doctors during surgery, said John Clausen, medical assistant program manager at Clark College.

“A lot of people don’t know who MAs are,” he said. “They think they’re nurses or physician assistants. I even have to remind my wife sometimes.”

Medical Assistants Recognition Week is the week of Oct. 15, and to combat this common misconception, students in the Clark College program will be assigned to wear ribbons and share their job description with folks during that time.

In most states, medical assistants are unlicensed and about six out of 10 work in physicians’ offices, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It is not usually required for medical assistants to complete training programs or be certified, but more and more employers are now requiring the credentials, which ensure minimum education requirements have been met, said Sheri Greimes, spokeswoman for the Washington State Society of Medical Assistants.

There are more than 20 medical assistant training programs in Washington, including the one-year program at Clark College. Last year, the program graduated 24 students and has a capacity of 30.

There are an estimated 409,000 medical assistants employed nationally, and in the past few years, it was one of the most in-demand health care jobs. That trend has lessened slightly, Clausen said, but the need is still there.

The BLS expects employment of medical assistants to grow much faster than the average for all jobs through 2014.

From an office’s standpoint, medical assistants are much less expensive than nurses, which adds to their value. In the Vancouver-Portland metro area, they earn $31,260 compared to the average $65,770 earned by regional registered nurses, according to the BLS.

When the program was introduced at Clark, Clausen said all of the students were women, but this batch of students has more men than ever.  

 “Doctors offices couldn’t run without (medical assistants),” he said. “Originally, they were trained so that one doctor and one medical assistant could be a doctors’ office. Essentially, they assist a doctor at being more efficient.”