When Ashley Ward found out she could become a certified medical assistant in 18 months at no cost, and receive a competitive wage while doing it, she jumped at the chance.
Though she enjoyed her job as a WellMed patient service representative, she wanted to do more hands-on medical care. Ashley was working at WellMed at West Camp Bowie in Fort Worth when she applied for the program. She hopes to return there after she graduates in early 2024.
Medical assistants, or MAs, are essential personnel in clinics. They are usually the first person a patient meets after checking in, often setting the tone of the visit. It’s a MA who gets a patient’s weight, height and blood pressure readings. MAs also record patient medical histories. Other tasks include calling in prescriptions to the pharmacy, drawing blood, assisting clinicians with procedures and explaining treatments and medications to patients. In short, MAs are important in supporting the clinic.
Because MAs are in such demand, turnover can be high. To help ease the shortage, WellMed education, training and development, and human capital, along with USMD, joined UnitedHealth Group Early Careers to develop a pilot program in North Texas. Ashley’s cohort, the first, started in April.
“By starting the apprenticeship program, WellMed and USMD would be able to train their future MAs to meet clinical staffing needs and improve the quality of MAs working in the clinics,” said Christine Amendola, WellMed chief education, training and development officer.
The benefits are twofold. Not only will the program increase the recruiting pipeline for WellMed and USMD, it also enables the companies to hire and invest in the communities in which our clinics serve.
The Dallas program is part of a larger initiative started by UnitedHealthcare in Colorado last year. Addressing the shortage of MAs, and other professions with staff shortages, the programs not only provide well-trained people for in-demand positions, they are also shown to help reduce turnover.
“Apprentices, all-in-all, tend to be more grateful and stay longer in their positions,” said Prat Verma, vice president workforce innovation. “If the average turnover rate is 20%, for apprenticeships we are seeing a lot less.”
Apprentices must complete 3000 hours, or about 15 months, of on-the-job training, an externship, under the guidance of a mentor or preceptor, before they graduate.
The 14 people in Ashley’s cohort were chosen from more than 400 applicants. An Air Force veteran with 10 years in, Ashley had a background in medical record management before starting at WellMed as a patient service representative, but many others in her cohort had no prior medical experience. In fact, prerequisites to apply for the program are few — a high school diploma or GED, transportation to get to class and a commitment to patient care and learning.
Once accepted into the program, participants are employees of UnitedHealth Care and receive around $18.25 an hour throughout the apprenticeship. After five weeks of classroom work, participants start shadowing MAs in a clinic two days a week. They take the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) exam, becoming certified MAs, at the end of the classroom period and are placed in a clinic to complete their required hours. Trainees may retake the exam multiple times.
The next class, which is already full, will take place in Tampa, Florida, another enterprise market in need of MAs.
As for Ashley, this is only a stepping-stone.
“I knew before I joined the military that I wanted to do something in medical,” she said. “I want to be a pediatrician eventually.”