Managing Your Practice

Medical assistants


When I began in private practice several eons ago, I employed only registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) in my office – as did, I think, most other physicians.

That is still the preferred way to go from an efficiency perspective, as well as the ability to delegate such tasks as blood collection and administering intramuscular injections. Unfortunately, the current state of medical practice – driven by payment reform, regulatory changes, technology costs, inflation, and other factors – has forced most independent practitioners to pivot from RNs and LPNs to medical assistants in a majority of situations.

Given this reality, it makes sense to understand how the use of medical assistants has changed private medical practice, and how the most effective MAs manage their roles and maximize their efficiency in the office.

A recent article by two physicians at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is one of the few published papers to address this issue. It presents the results of a cross-sectional study examining the MA’s experience and key factors that enhance or reduce efficiencies.

The authors sent an email survey to 86 MAs working in six clinics within the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center, and received responses from 75 of them, including 61 who completed the entire survey. They then singled out 18 individuals deemed “most efficient” by their peers and conducted face-to-face interviews with them.

The surveys and interviews looked at how MAs identified personal strategies for efficiency, dealt with barriers to implementing those strategies, and navigated interoffice relationships, as well as how all of this affected overall job satisfaction.

All 61 respondents who completed the full survey agreed that the MA role was “very important to keep the clinic functioning” and nearly all said that working in health care was “a calling” for them. About half agreed that their work was very stressful, and about the same percentage reported that there was inadequate MA staffing at their clinic. Others complained of limited pay and promotion opportunities.

The surveyed MAs described important work values that increased their efficiency. These included good communication, strong teamwork, and workload sharing, as well as individual strategies such as multitasking, limiting patient conversations, and completing tasks in a consistent way to improve accuracy.

Other strategies identified as contributing to an efficient operation included preclinic huddles, reviews of patient records before the patient’s arrival, and completing routine office duties before the start of office hours.

Respondents were then asked to identify barriers to clinic efficiency, and most of them involved physicians who barked orders at them, did not complete paperwork or sign orders in a timely manner, and agreed to see late-arriving patients. Some MAs suggested that physicians refrain from “talking down” to them, and teach rather than criticize. They also faulted decisions affecting patient flow made by other staffers without soliciting the MAs’ input.

Despite these barriers, the authors found that most of the surveyed MAs agreed that their work was valued by doctors. “Proper training of managers to provide ... support and ensure equitable workloads may be one strategy to ensure that staff members feel the workplace is fair and collegial,” they said.

“Many described the working relationships with physicians as critical to their satisfaction at work and indicated that strong partnerships motivated them to do their best to make the physician’s day easier,” they added.

At the same time, the authors noted that most survey subjects reported that their jobs were “stressful,” and believed that their stress went underrecognized by physicians. They argued that “it’s important for physicians to be cognizant of these patterns and clinic culture, as reducing a hierarchy-based environment will be appreciated by MAs.”

Since this study involved only MAs in a family practice setting, further studies will be needed to determine whether these results translate to specialty offices – and whether the unique issues inherent in various specialty environments elicit different efficiency contributors and barriers.

Overall, though, “staff job satisfaction is linked to improved quality of care, so treating staff well contributes to high-value care for patients,” the authors wrote. “Disseminating practices that staff members themselves have identified as effective, and being attentive to how staff members are treated, may increase individual efficiency while improving staff retention and satisfaction.”

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at

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