The debate over the price of health care in America has been brewing for decades and will prevail as a political and economic issue as America’s population ages. Health premiums continue to rise despite the growing number of Americans unable to afford access to health care. Primarily centered on the age-old issue of government regulation vs. free-market competition, the health care controversy is far from over. Proponents of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) argue the need for government intervention in the industry to ensure that everyone can afford health coverage. Opponents of the law reject governmental regulation and believe that private insurance companies must be able to compete in order to offer lower rates and quality care.
Health care costs reached nearly $2.6 trillion by 2010, almost 10 times the amount spent in 1980. This substantial upsurge is partially due to an increase in chronic disease cases, an aging population and administrative costs. Although this is a systemic problem and cannot be solved directly, there are some steps health care professionals are taking to reduce costs without compromising the quality of care. For example, in an effort to trim overhead expenses, many hospitals and clinics have hired Certified Medical Assistants (CMAs) in place of additional physicians or other medical professionals. Although there are different types of medical assistants, any of whom can be valuable assets to the medical field, the CMA brings important credentials that have become indispensable in reducing overhead costs for the health care industry.
Role of Medical Assistants
In the United States, there are over 800 medical assistant programs accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Once a student completes an accredited program, the medical assistant can voluntarily obtain certification through 1 of 4 organizations. The most common certification programs are through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) and the American Medical Technologists (AMT). Both programs maintain strict curriculum guidelines; require successful completion of a board examination, given in consultation with the National Board of Medical Examiners; and entail recertification every 5 years, through re-examination or continuing education hours. With such stringent standards, many employers prefer to hire a medical assistant with certification, assuring a certain level of competence.
Some fundamental skills of a CMA include:
- Performing administrative and office duties
- Speaking with, screening and educating patients
- Maintaining patient records.
When these responsibilities are delegated to a medical assistant, it not only allows the clinician (physician, physician’s assistant, or nurse practitioner) to focus on more complicated medical tasks but also can significantly cut administrative costs. Essentially, the work of medical assistants can decrease operating costs without sacrificing quality health care.
Particularly in small clinics consisting of 1 or 2 doctors, support staff provides valuable expertise in managing the office. Certified medical assistants are educated and trained in data filing, telephone etiquette, receptionist tasks, and customer service. The advantage of hiring a medical assistant rather than a secretary is the specialized training they usher in from their certification programs such as medical terminology, patient communication and confidentiality. Since office management is not the only skill CMAs obtain through their training, multi-tasking becomes a crucial component in reducing costs in the health care industry.
Patient interaction and care is one of the most central duties of a medical assistant that can decrease both short-term and long-term costs for medical providers. They are trained to communicate, advocate and educate patients, which not only reaps dividends in overall health care but is also an effective tool for cutting costs. Rather than increasing the number of more expensive medical professionals (such as physicians or physician’s assistants), hospitals and large medical clinics can employ certified medical assistants to screen patients, provide basic exam preparation, obtain vital signs, conduct basic diagnostic procedures, and educate patients regarding health management. The average annual salary for a medical assistant is $30,000 compared to $186,000, the average annual salary for a physician of internal medicine. The cost savings of employing certified medical assistants to do the work traditionally done by a doctor or a physician’s assistant should make a significant impact on reducing health care costs to patients. Additionally, when CMAs spend the time to educate patients about their treatment and health maintenance, the quality of care improves.
Certified medical assistants receive extensive training in requesting, recording and maintaining records. From patient history to immunization charts, the CMA’s role in record keeping contributes to the overall efficiency of the medical office or hospital. When medical records are kept properly, physicians are able to more accurately care for patients, confidentiality is preserved, and the treatment provided is enhanced. As doctors spend less time sorting through paperwork and more time providing specialized care, the use of a CMA becomes an essential cost-cutting tool.
The dramatic rise in demand for qualified medical assistants is expected to continue through the middle of the current decade. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks the field of medical assistance as one of the fastest growing sectors of the job market. Moreover, medical assistants cover a broad range of specialties across the health care industry, from pediatrics to geriatrics, from dermatology to cardiology. Individuals pursuing a career as a medical assistant can take advantage of an occupation with tremendous job growth and professional diversity.