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MAs MIA? The COVID-19 pandemic made hiring medical assistants harder than ever

MGMA Stat - May 6, 2021

Recruitment & Hiring

Compensation & Benefits

Staffing Models

Human Resources

Operations Management

Chris Harrop

Recruiting and retaining some of healthcare’s hardest-to-fill positions remains a difficult task for medical practice leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic, as medical assistants (MAs) are in high demand with a broader scope of practice.

A May 4 MGMA Stat poll found 88% of healthcare leaders reported difficulty in recruiting MAs, while 12% did not. The poll had 1,043 applicable responses.

Respondents to the poll cited numerous issues with MA staffing since the beginning of the pandemic:
  • Many experienced MAs left the profession after decades of work. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found almost 3 in 10 healthcare workers have weighed leaving their profession, and about 6 in 10 said pandemic stress has harmed their mental health.1
  • Some practice leaders say that MAs who went onto unemployment in the past year have not returned, on account of extra financial relief offered by the government during the pandemic.
  • Some poll respondents said that some MAs have refused to comply with mask requirements and refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which has caused disruption of employee schedules.
  • When practice leaders post open positions for MAs, they report it’s harder to find good candidates or those who will follow up for an interview after applying.
  • One respondent said the practice started taking in students for externships in hopes of training them to eventually be hired for full-time work.

How COVID-19 sparked renewed demand for MAs

Part of the growing demand for qualified MAs likely includes the new scope of practice during the public health emergency (PHE), as various federal and state entities have expanded the ways in which MAs can deliver care.
  • For most of 2020, MAs played key roles in practices responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to screen patients for potential exposure, as well as performing nasopharyngeal swabbing to test for COVID-19, as authorized by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) last year.2
  • More recently, various states (including Tennessee and Washington) have clarified that certified MAs can administer COVID-19 vaccines under various conditions (e.g., under the supervision of a delegating registered nurse, with a supervising practitioner immediately available).3 This move also has support from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), which issued a policy brief in December 2020 regarding certified MAs being delegated vaccine administration, if they are trained in informed consent, vaccine side effects and emergency management of adverse reactions.4
  • MAs also broadened the ways in which they work after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance that permits them and other healthcare personnel (HCP) to connect with patients to deliver care via telehealth modalities.5
  • The extraordinary growth in behavioral healthcare demand associated with the expansion of telehealth services6 also points to a potential demand for more MA work in outpatient behavioral health clinics.7

Long-term market demand for MAs

The latest projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in its Occupational Outlook Handbook point to an expected 19% growth in MA employment from 2019 (725,200 MAs) to 2029 (864,400 MAs), outpacing the projected increases for all occupations (4%) and other healthcare support occupations (14%). As the handbook details:
The growth of the aging baby-boom population will continue to increase demand for preventive medical services, which are often provided by physicians. As a result, physicians will hire more assistants to perform routine administrative and clinical duties, allowing the physicians to see more patients.8

Focus on retention

Attendees of a recent MGMA webinar on the new Quantifying COVID-19 data report noted that staffing issues have been a limiting factor in trying to restore visit volumes throughout their pandemic recovery.

“I think this really points to [the need] to think more strategically about how to get ahead of this,” said Andy Swanson, MPA, CMPE, vice president, industry insights, MGMA. If you have MAs or nursing staff "bouncing around practices in town or between the hospital or hospital systems ... you’ve got to have a feeder system,” he implored.

Additionally, building more into the employee onboarding process is a crucial way to lay the groundwork for better retention as compensation and benefits become more competitive. Making those early days and weeks “memorable and extremely positive” to leave a lasting impact as a new employee integrates with your team might make the difference in keeping that person when an offer for better pay comes along, added Swanson.

Did you know?

MGMA DataDive Management and Staff Compensation provides key compensation benchmarks for job titles throughout a medical group practice, from the C-suite to the front desk? Last year’s national survey included total compensation responses for more than 23,360 MA positions nationwide, as well as hourly rate data from 33,923 respondents. Learn more about this industry-leading data set ahead of this year’s release in June.

JOIN MGMA STAT

Our ability at MGMA to provide great resources, education and advocacy depends on a strong feedback loop with healthcare leaders. To be part of this effort, sign up for MGMA Stat and make your voice heard in our weekly polls. Sign up by texting “STAT” to 33550 or visit mgma.com/stat. Polls will be sent to your phone via text message.

Do you have any best practices or success stories to share on this topic? Please let us know by emailing us at connection@mgma.com.

Learn more

Notes:

  1. Wan W. “Burned out by the pandemic, 3 in 10 health-care workers consider leaving the profession.” The Washington Post, April 22, 2021. Available from: wapo.st/33cclbu.
  2. CMS. “Medicare and Medicaid Programs; Policy and Regulatory Revisions in Response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.” April 6, 2020. Available from: bit.ly/3nQwz48.
  3. Balasa DA. “Federal Policy and the Pandemic: How the Pandemic and Changes in Federal Policy Have Expanded Medical Assistants’ Scope of Practice.” CMA Today. March/April 2021. Available from: bit.ly/3xTtdSy.
  4. NCSBN. “Policy Brief: COVID-19 Vaccine Administration.” December 2020. Available from: bit.ly/2RpKGkQ.
  5. CDC. “Using Telehealth to Expand Access to Essential Health Services during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Available from: bit.ly/3gYKZ0K.
  6. Fischer SH, Uscher-Pines L, Roth E, et al. “The Transition to Telehealth during the First Months of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evidence from a National Sample of Patients.” J Gen Intern Med 36, 849–851 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-020-06358-0.
  7. Cassata C. “Comfort in Crisis: Medical Assistant Prioritizes Mental Health During Pandemic.” CMA Today. May/June 2021. Available from: bit.ly/3ufc0AH.
  8. BLS. “Medical Assistants.” Occupational Outlook Handbook. Available from: bit.ly/3eaP4wS.
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About the Author

Chris Harrop
Chris Harrop
Senior Editorial Manager MGMA

Chris Harrop, senior editorial manager, MGMA, serves as editor of MGMA's flagship print publication, MGMA Connection magazine, and oversees various association content publications while also serving as a contributing author for the organization. Prior to MGMA, he was managing editor of multiple news organizations in the Denver metro area. Email him.

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