When Sanford Health, the largest employer in North and South Dakota announced in 2012 that it would stop using medical assistants in a clinical role, the news hit hard for local medical assistants.

“We were stunned even though they had been scrutinizing our scope of practice and limiting what they allowed medical assistants to do,” says Jo Penning, BS, CMA (AAMA).

The decision to phase out medical assistants came about when Sanford Health expanded from South Dakota into North Dakota, where it took over hundreds of clinics.

“At that point they replaced medical assistants with RNs [registered nurses],” says Penning. “They said they needed people with more education and who were licensed.”

In the existing clinics, some medical assistants were moved to the front office; however, the administrative duties they were given were limited, primarily because most of the coding and billing for Sanford is managed in a department outside of the clinics.

In 2015 Penning was hired as the medical assisting program coordinator for National American University (NAU) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There, she developed a relationship with a workforce consultant officer at Avera Health, another large health system in the area that employs over 80 medical assistants.

“They love medical assistants and call us all the time looking for new hires,” says Penning.

Last year Penning teamed up with Avera for a local news story on the profession. Filmed at an Avera clinic and NAU, the story included interviews with Penning, a medical assisting student, a graduate, and Avera human-resources personnel.

“It was great marketing for the profession and got us a lot of attention,” says Penning.

In early 2018 she kept the marketing going by emailing Avera and Sanford clinical managers who helped set up practicum sites for her students. Her message informed them about an upcoming continuing education (CE) session on medical assistants’ scope of practice hosted by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) and presented by AAMA CEO and Legal Counsel Donald A. Balasa, JD, MBA.

“Someone forwarded on my email to the nursing and clinical services director at Sanford who showed up to listen to our CE session,” says Penning.

The meeting sparked the director’s interest, and Penning began sending her details about the profession. “I gave her every piece of information I could come up with from the AAMA, including the [CMA (AAMA) Certification/Recertification Examination] Content Outline,” noting that they were very impressed, particularly regarding the “education covered in pharmacology, clinical, and laboratory [competencies],” says Penning.

Today, the relationship is going strong with regular communication between Penning and Sanford. “Now that they realize there is a lot more that medical assistants can do than they were allowing them to do previously, they started sending me job openings. Just last week, they sent five,” she notes. Penning believes medical assistants’ pay will increase. “When you have both Sanford and Avera wanting medical assistants, that drives up pay,” she says.

She also hopes to create more practicum opportunities for students. “Previously, Sanford would only let medical assistant students follow other medical assistants, but since they didn’t have any on staff, we couldn’t send students,” explains Penning.

To change this, she sent Sanford the practicum guidelines from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), and she explained that an extern can follow any medical professional who understands medical assistants’ scope of practice.

“I just talked with a student to see if she wants to be their first extern in Sioux Falls,” says Penning. “We’ve made big strides with Sanford, and it’s great to see it all pay off.”