Developing a Better Understanding of Medical Assistants’ Roles and Functions in Primary Care Settings (2016-17)

Investigators: Erin Fraher PhD MPP & Dana Neutze MD PhD

Background: There are over 600,000 Medical Assistants (MAs) in practice in the United States.[1] MAs are one of the fastest growing health professions and their numbers are expected to increase by 23% between 2014-2024. [2] MAs are not licensed, but certification is available through national organizations such as the Association of American Medical Assistants (AAMA). Certification is not required for employment and MA training is highly variable in length and rigor.  Programs range from 6 months to 2 years and some MAs do not receive any formal education, but instead enter the workforce with a high school degree and receive on-the-job training.

Traditionally, MAs have had limited clinical duties such as rooming patients and taking vital signs. As the healthcare system has evolved, MA roles have undergone significant redesign (Bodenheimer). Increasingly, MAs are taking on more clinical responsibilities and primary care practices are deploying MAs as health coaches, referral coordinators, disease registry managers, health screeners, panel managers, diabetes educators, scribes and outreach workers, among other roles.

Developing a better understanding of what is expected of MAs is critical to helping education and certification organizations develop the training needed for the MA workforce to meet the rapidly evolving demands of the health care system.  More information is also needed about how MA role redesign has affected MA and physician job satisfaction—the so-called “fourth aim” of the triple aim (Bodenheimer and Sinsky).  If our current and future healthcare delivery system is to rely on a growing and changing MA workforce, we need to better understand how to support MAs, physicians and the practices that employ them.

Study aims: This project will achieve the following aims: 1. investigate the evolving roles of medical assistants in primary care settings in North Carolina; 2. identify MA workforce development needs/skill gaps and; 3. assess attitudes about MA role redesign from both the perspective of medical assistants and physicians.



[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics,, accessed June 8, 2016.

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections,, accessed June 8 2016