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Medical Assistants’ Roles in Colorado Health Care Keep Growing

They're neither your doctors nor your nurses, but their jobs—and training—could mean a lot to your health.

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It’s pretty normal (and enormously frustrating) to call your primary care provider for an appointment only to learn you can’t get on the books for six weeks. Colorado’s explosive population growth—not to mention the 1.3 million senior citizens projected to live here by 2030—means there’s high demand not only for doctors but also for their often-overlooked team members: medical assistants (MAs).

Typically, the MA is the person taking your blood pressure, asking whether you smoke, and setting up specialist referrals. The occupation is projected to grow by nearly 30 percent nationwide—up to six times faster than the average job—by 2026. At that point, though, the position may look different. To cope with ever-heavier caseloads, physicians are already asking MAs to take on more critical tasks, such as reviewing a patient’s medical history and briefing the team on problems. But education for MAs hasn’t been keeping up with these career demands. Most MAs still spend only one month of their seven-month training getting in-hospital clinical practice, and they receive little instruction in critical thinking, which can result in ill-preparedness for their expanding roles.

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Enter the National Institute of Medical Assistant Advancement (NIMAA), which relocated its headquarters to Colorado in May. NIMAA partners with community health centers to give MA students on-the-ground training—for all seven months—that focuses on data literacy and team-based leadership skills and provides subsidies to help cover the $6,000 course fee. (Many MA certification programs can cost upward of $20,000.) “These are bright and talented people who haven’t been treated as potential leaders in our health care system,” says NIMAA board chair Mark Masselli. “This [improved training] should be the beginning of the stepladder for them.” The institute plans to expand from six to 15 clinic locations in Colorado by 2023—meaning more patients in more places can feel good about whoever’s reading their charts.

By the Numbers

30% Percentage by which the medical assistant occupation is projected to grow by 2026

15 NIMAA-sponsored medical assistant training clinic locations that will be open by 2023

Could Dental Cleanings at Medical Offices Be the New Norm?

One recent program suggests integrating the two could be the key to boosting dental health.

If going to the dentist isn’t your thing, you’re not alone: Dental care is easily overlooked, especially when access is difficult, which it can be in Colorado. More than a quarter of counties in the state have a shortage of dental health professionals. The Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation is addressing the problem with the Colorado Medical-Dental Integration Project, a first-in-the-country experiment placing dental hygienists in 26 medical practices across the state. The idea: People are more likely to get a medical checkup than a teeth cleaning, but they might stick around the doctor’s office to get their pearly whites examined and polished. Results of the program will be out this summer; here’s a preview.

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[Correction: This story initially listed the name of the Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation’s initiative as the Colorado Medical-Dental Integration Program. It is the Colorado Medical-Dental Integration Project. We regret the error.]

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