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The Unsung Medical Heroes: How Medical Assistants Help Doctors and Nurses Through the Busy Holidays

Medical Assistant

Do you know who took your vitals the last time you went in for a checkup? It might not have been a nurse, doctor, or physician's assistant. Here's how important medical assistants are in the healthcare industry.


There's been a need in the allied health workforce that's pushed the Dartmouth-Hitchcock clinic in New Hampshire to start a medical assistant apprentice program two years ago. Local colleges weren't pumping out enough medical assistants to fill positions at clinics, hospitals, and other medical care facilities in the state. According to Sarah Currier, a director for the clinic's healthcare system, without enough medical assistants, doctors, nurses, physician's assistants and other allied health workers end up doing time-consuming tasks that slow down their overall caregiving. Currier says that a long-term lack of medical assistants at a particular healthcare facility can result in slower care that will force the facility to turn away patients!

What do medical assistants do? After Dartmouth-Hitchcock's 11-week classroom apprenticeship, medical assistant apprentices are able to start collecting a brief medical history from patients, like asking routine questions about allergies and current prescriptions. They're also able to take your weight, height, and other vitals. Since they don't have an accepted health-related degree, like what nurses, doctors, physician's assistants, and other allied health workers have, they're limited in the care they can provide. They can't write prescriptions or perform procedures that are unsupervised or require a license.

But they do take a load off of the doctors' and nurses' duties. And unlike community colleges, apprenticeships are usually free or they even pay their apprentices a salary! That means people can get paid to train as a medical assistant rather than pay tuition at a local small school – even President Obama said that for this reason, apprenticeships remove financial barriers to education and careers.

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Medical assistants are even more critical during the holidays. The University of California San Francisco says that heart attacks and other emergencies become more prevalent during the holidays. In fact, the medical director of the university's medical emergency department said that in his two decades of practice he's witnessed a surge of traumatic injuries, baby deliveries, and fiesta-related emergencies during the tail end of November through early January. In fact, cardiovascular disease-related deaths surge during December too. If doctors and nurses are too busy doing paperwork and collecting rudimentary medical histories, they'll be slower to respond to emergencies and patients who really need their expert care – plus, there will be an ever-growing backlog of patients waiting.

If you'd like to do your part and help streamline healthcare so that doctors can see more patients this December and January, here are a few time-saving things you can do:

Use a heart rate monitor. Researchers say that using a heart rate monitor can boost the quality of healthcare systems and patient quality of life. They found that most heart rate apps, watches, and devices have an average accuracy between 79.8 and 99.1 percent. FitnessExpertReview.com says that regularly using a heart rate monitor, like when you exercise, can be very helpful if you show the device's detailed history to your doctor. Unlike a one-time reading, your heart rate monitor's long-term statistics about your cardiovascular health can help your doctor give you a better diagnosis and gives her a better overview of your health.

Fill out your forms before getting to the doctor. Because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, healthcare practices now keep electronic medical records. If you're a new patient, the secretary most likely emailed you new patient forms and asked you to fill them out online to help save time when you get to the doctor. Filling out these forms online and sending them to your doctor helps her better prepare for you in advance, which means less wait times for both of you and her other patients.

Remember, it's not just the nurses, doctors, and physician's assistants that get you the care you deserve – in front of them are the tireless medical assistants who tremendously speed up and streamline healthcare. You can do your part by using a heart rate monitor daily and by pre-fillling and submitting patient forms online.