First Aid: Medical assistant apprenticeship program a first in the region

They’re vital aids to medical providers, interacting with patients and handling any number of duties that help a healthcare setting run smoothly.

They’re medical assistants and in the Grand Traverse region, they’re in short supply.

Christy Chowhan

“It’s very difficult. We have had several openings that I have been unable to fill,” said Christy Chowhan, clinical director at Kalkaska Medical Associates, a multi-specialty group practice owned by Kalkaska Memorial Health Center.

In response, Kalkaska and others are building a medical assistant apprenticeship program that’s a first in the region.

In collaboration with Northwest Michigan Works!, Kalkaska Memorial Health Center and Great Lakes Orthopaedic Center, PC have developed medical assistant (MA) apprenticeship tracks that offer new career opportunities to existing employees or outside recruits. The U.S. Department of Labor-registered training program combines paid on-the-job learning and guidance from staff mentors, with online technical instruction delivered by Penn Foster College.

At the end of training, apprentices receive a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) national medical assistant journeyworker credential, a medical assistant career diploma from Penn Foster, and they can take an industry medical assistant certification exam through a chosen certifying body.

It’s a workforce development strategy that employers can customize to their individual operations and needs, said Evelyn Szpliet, manager of apprenticeships and business resource networks at Northwest Michigan Works!

“It can be adapted to just about any healthcare provider with medical assistants on their team,” she said. “They can design the on-the-job training, they can select any educational provider … that can prepare the apprentices to take the (certification) exam.”

At Great Lakes Orthopaedic in Traverse City, apprentices are trained for the many administrative and clinical tasks that MAs perform, including greeting patients and recording physical information; accompanying patients to practice areas; ordering X-rays, orthotics or physical therapy sought by a doctor; scheduling doctor-ordered surgeries, discussing surgery protocols with patients and readying providers’ operative notes; and entering information into a computer for doctor use.

Deana Guy-Johnson

“All the doctors here have their own MAs,” said clinical manager Deana Guy-Johnson. “They’re very much in line with those providers, so that they become a second hand for the providers.”

Apprentices “learn all the aspects of being in an office … the front area, the billing part of it, they learn the clinical part of it. It makes them really well-rounded,” she said. “They’re full-time workers, and so if they’re not doing their classroom, they are on the floor doing their job.”

Great Lakes Orthopaedic’s apprenticeship program is for one year and includes 2,000 hours of clinic work and weekly online course work. Apprentices’ wages increase as they successfully complete training and full certification, and apprentices agree to work for Great Lakes one additional year after completing their program.

Mentors share some of the apprentice’s work schedule and are always available to the apprentice to verify hands-on learning, answer questions and check off proficiencies when accomplished.

Great Lakes has one apprentice slated to finish this spring and two others beginning. The program gives Great Lakes the opportunity to create an internal pipeline of MAs trained to the practice’s standards and needs, and it also can encourage employees to learn and further their career.

“We are very excited about it, because it really has been a challenge trying to find people to fill these positions. We just haven’t had a lot of luck,” Guy-Johnson said. “I think it drives our employees to want to learn more about what we do here.”

The field holds promise. Employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 19% from 2019 to 2029 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “much faster than the average for all occupations.”

The bureau reports that “the growth of the aging baby-boom population will continue to increase demand for preventative 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.”

The bureau also notes that many medical assistants work in primary care, “a steadily growing sector of the healthcare industry.”

Kalkaska Medical Associates, located at Kalkaska Memorial, launched its apprenticeship program last May. It has had six enrollees, one of whom has finished and two others are slated by finish by April.

Training includes taking and recording vital signs, performing EKGs, assisting providers with patient exams, preparing patients for procedures and treatments, obtaining specimens, performing sterilization of medical equipment, wound care, administering injections and immunizations, communicating with patients and creating their medical record, and scheduling appointments and procedures. Training also covers scanning medical records, medical billing and coding, payment posting and other items.

Chowhan said that in developing the scope of training, she met with managers of various hospital departments to arrange for their certified staff to help with training. She said the apprenticeship program’s duration is typically about 15 months, but individuals can progress at their own pace and finish sooner.

Penn Foster’s medical assistant diploma program includes courses in law, ethics and confidentiality, medical billing and health insurance, body systems and medical terminology, pathology and pharmacology, electronic medical records, medical coding and clinical procedures.

Northwest Michigan Works! helped Kalkaska Medical and Great Lakes Orthopaedic connect with DOL-funded grants to offset tuition costs. Northwest Michigan Works! also offers a program that can help eligible apprentices with “tools of the trade” like scrubs, stethoscopes and other needs, Szpliet said.

Evelyn Szpliet

“Our focus includes offering wraparound services for both the employers and apprentices to ensure the success of the program,” she said.

Northwest Michigan Works! acts as an intermediary between an employer and the DOL, handling paperwork and assembling documents. From the start, the agency helps the employer structure a program and prepare a package that’s acceptable to the DOL, assisting in recruiting apprentice candidates, submitting apprenticeship registrations to the DOL and providing ongoing technical assistance and administrative support.

Working with the employer, Northwest Michigan Works! tracks the apprentice’s training, manages their paperwork and keeps in touch to help them succeed. Szpliet said the MA program has drawn interest from other healthcare employers in the region.

At Kalkaska Medical, Chowhan said the program benefits both the practice and the community.

“We are a growing facility,” she said. “We try to provide services based on the needs of our community … by having more specialists and more family doctors. As we hire a new provider, we will have a need of another medical assistant.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.