Clinical Support Workforce Crisis: What Teaching Health Centers Have to Offer

By Lori Nichols, MSPH, NIMAA Director of Business and Partnership Development

Healthcare experts predict that the primary care workforce in the United States is nearing a crisis due to a decreasing proportion of medical school graduates opting for careers in primary care. Couple this with a rising number of providers nearing retirement, and we are facing a perfect storm leading us into a dwindling primary care workforce.

While provider shortages have been predicted for some time now, a newer phenomenon is similar shortages showing up in other clinical support roles at health centers, including medical assistants. Not surprisingly, shortages of allied health professionals impact the entire health center team – and patients.

The word “crisis” is not overly dramatic in this situation. Consider the devastating impact of shrinking resources for prevention and treatment, health promotion and maintenance, counseling, and patient education.

Imagine walking into your neighborhood clinic for your diabetes screening and finding long wait times and unfamiliar faces, or facing a new diagnosis for chronic hypertension but having no access to education or counseling services.

And if you are healthy now with accessible health care, then imagine a friend, co-worker, or family member who is less fortunate having to navigate depleting health care resources in their own communities. This is an unsettling image, particularly when you consider healthcare should be a right, not a privilege.

Bottom line: We need to do more to recruit and retain high quality staff who want to work in rural, low-income and otherwise underserved communities. If not now, when? And how?

Thankfully, all hope is not lost. All across our country, there is a very special movement taking shape in what are called “Teaching Health Centers.” These are the federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and similar sites that provide training to ensure a viable primary care workforce for low-income communities. According to the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), “The Teaching Health Center GME program is instrumental in increasing access to health care services for people who are geographically isolated, economically or medically vulnerable.”

But how does this help clinical support staff, such as medical assistants?

Many Teaching Health Centers (THCs) receive federal funding to help support their training programs. For example, HRSA’s THC Graduate Medical Education program provides $230 million over 5 years to community-based organizations to train residents and dentists in these settings. If a similar infrastructure was extended to clinical support staff, such as medical assistants, it could help prepare clinics for a variety of training programs, ultimately creating more equitable health career entry points.

 Here at NIMAA, we know that our medical assistant students are instrumental in helping to solve the workforce crisis. Our students are excited and well prepared to enter a career in health care and give back to medically underserved areas. The idea of extending THCs and similar programs to include clinical support and allied health roles would help grow the incoming cadre of passionate students, trainees, and highly-qualified staff of today into the innovative health care providers and leaders of tomorrow.