Middletown-Based Community Health Center Starts Own Medical Assistant School
Shawn R. Beals-Hartford Courant
The Community Health Center is pushing to become a national leader in the training of medical assistants by developing its own school to educate the people who are typically providing the first level of primary care.
Community Health Center, Inc. said it recently received approval in five states, including Connecticut, for its home-grown school, and is seeking approval from up to 10 more.
The National Institute of Medical Assistant Advancement started last year with students in Connecticut and Colorado as a pilot group taking a seven-month program that intertwines the classroom and clinical components of traditional medical assistant schools.
In September, a total of 60 to 70 students will be enrolled at eight different health center sites in Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Pennsylvania and New Mexico.
A medical assistant is typically the first person a patient sees in their visit, the person who usually measures their height and weight, takes blood pressure and other vital signs and begins to hear about the reason for their visit.
CHC developed the new school after finding that many new medical assistants weren't prepared for the federally-qualified health center setting even after completing a program that often costs more than $20,000. Typical private institutes include months of classroom learning before placing students in an internship program, but CHC through NIMAA thinks it has found a much better method by combining those two components throughout the 7-month course.
"We're a health care organization, we don't have to wait until they're all through learning to get them immersed in a health care setting," said Mark Splaine, director of education at Community Health Center. "We thought we could really change the educational model."
NIMAA's program will cost about $6,000 plus fees, about one-fourth of the price of some medical assistant training schools. The entry-level position has an average salary of a little over $30,000, so student loan debt has been a major concern for medical assistants, Splaine said.
Students in the program might learn how to check vital signs, then observe and practice that procedure later the same day. Students will spend about 17 hours each week in the clinic working as part of a team with the doctors, nurses and other providers. They will have another 12-15 hours of course work and online learning to complete, plus a one-hour group lecture via video conference that all students across the country will participate in.
Federally-qualified health centers serve mostly lower-income and minority patients who otherwise would have little access to health care. They often provide medical, dental and behavioral health care within the same visit, so students will be learning a variety of health care practices in NIMAA, said Mary Blankson, director of nursing at Community Health Center.
"A lot of the medical assistants being hired would come in with all the same core skill sets, but there were huge gaps in their experiential knowledge," Blankson said. "You get an opportunity to learn about primary care and mental health, and how does dental care integrate. We want you to come in and know your ideas are going to be heard. You become immediately a member of the team."
Jennifer Deprey, a medical assistant who was part of last year's pilot course and is now working at CHC, said she took a traditional medical assistant program several years ago but ended up working in an administrative role later. She said NIMAA's program allowing students to immediately do the work of a medical assistant made her much better prepared for the job.
"Being in the clinic from Day One, you have that everyday real life happening in front of you, where in a traditional program you go into the clinic to do your hours and you're lost," said Deprey, 39, of Bristol.
Splaine said the program will be expanding for the next few years, and can accommodate 200 to 300 students per class. The fall course will go from September to March with a holiday break. He said NIMAA is also considering adding a March through August cohort to allow greater schedule flexibility.
"We've been undergoing a change in the way we deliver primary care," said Community Health Center, Inc. founder and CEO Mark Masselli. "It's a team of people including a medical assistant, a nurse, a behaviorist. The MA was a weak link and we had always envisioned the MA being a linchpin. After 7 months and twenty to thirty thousand dollars, they came to the health center not prepared to deliver health care in the 21st century."
Masselli said NIMAA will seek accreditation after its second year, and will also develop a continuing education curriculum for people already certified as medical assistants. He said the NIMAA program is better equipped than traditional programs because it operates within a health care setting.
"The current model of training is 7 months but 6 months in a classroom," Masselli said. "For the entire 7 months you're learning and also [working] in a clinical setting."