delegation, On the Job, Scope of Practice

Standing Orders from an Overseeing Provider

I receive the following question about standing orders fairly often, and it is a bit difficult to answer because state law seldom addresses it:

Our new office manager claims that it is illegal for medical assistants to perform tasks based on standing orders of our licensed providers. She states that only licensed professionals, such as registered nurses (RNs), are permitted to work under standing orders. Is this legally accurate?

Most state laws do not prohibit physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants from assigning tasks to unlicensed allied health professionals such as medical assistants by means of standing orders.

However, the crucial issue is what tasks medical assistants may or may not be delegated by standing order.

It is my legal opinion that medical assistants are permitted to receive and execute standing orders from an overseeing/delegating provider as long as the following conditions are met:

  1. The standing order is understood by the medical assistant.
  2. The standing order is for a task that is delegable to medical assistants under the laws of the state, and the delegating provider is exercising the degree of supervision required by the laws of the state.
  3. The standing order is either patient-specific or applicable to all patients without exception.
  4. The standing order does not require the medical assistant to exercise independent clinical judgment or make clinical assessments, evaluations, or interpretations.

If you’d like to know more about your specific state laws, visit the State Scope of Practice Laws webpage on the AAMA website.

delegation, On the Job, Scope of Practice

Distributing vs. Dispensing Drugs

If you’re a medical assistant with questions about handing sample medications or drugs to patients, consider the following situation a CMA (AAMA) in Texas brought to my attention:

I am a CMA (AAMA) employed in a large, multispecialty clinic. I received an order from one of our licensed providers to distribute packets of sample medications to a patient. Is this legal in my state [Texas]? I thought only pharmacists and their staff were permitted to dispense medications.

To answer the question accurately, we have to define some terms. Note the following definitions from the Texas Pharmacy Act:

Sec. 551.003. DEFINITIONS. In Chapters 551-566:

(1) “Administer” means to directly apply a prescription drug to the body of a patient by any means, including injection, inhalation, or ingestion, …

(16) “Dispense” means to prepare, package, compound, or label, in the course of professional practice, a prescription drug or device for delivery to an ultimate user or the user ‘s agent under a practitioner ‘s lawful order.

(17) “Distribute” means to deliver a prescription drug or device other than by administering or dispensing.

Also, note the following from the Texas Occupations Code:

§157.002.General Delegation of Administration and Provision of Dangerous Drugs

(a) In this section:

(1) “Administering” means the direct application of a drug to the body of a patient by injection, inhalation, ingestion, or any other means.

(2) “Provision” means the supply of one or more unit doses of a drug, medicine, or dangerous drug.

(b) A physician may delegate to any qualified and properly trained person acting under the physician’s supervision the act of administering or providing dangerous drugs in the physician’s office, as ordered by the physician, that are used or required to meet the immediate needs of the physician’s patients. The administration or provision of the dangerous drugs must be performed in compliance with laws relating to the practice of medicine and state and federal laws relating to those dangerous drugs.

According to these definitions, “distributing” a drug is not the same as “dispensing” a drug.

Under the laws of most every state, physicians are permitted to distribute/provide sample medications to their patients. (This is also generally the case with nurse practitioners and physician assistants, although the laws vary from state to state.)

The laws of many states explicitly or implicitly permit physicians to assign to knowledgeable and competent medical assistants working under their direct/on-site supervision the distributing or providing of sample medications to patients of the physician.

In the scenario described, the CMA (AAMA) is being asked by a delegating licensed provider to distribute/provide sample medications to patients, not to dispense medications.

It is my legal opinion that, if there is a likelihood of significant harm to a patient if the sample medication is selected or distributed improperly, the delegating provider must verify the identity and the dosage of the sample medication before it is distributed to the patient by the medical assistant.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, delegation, On the Job, Scope of Practice

Conditions of Participation and Medical Assisting

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Conditions of Participation (CoPs) do not preempt or override state scope of practice laws. Moreover, state laws regarding provider delegation to medical assistants are not altered or nullified when medical offices and clinics are owned, operated, or on the premises of a hospital that is required to meet CMS CoPs.

Review the supporting evidence in the March/April 2019 Public Affairs article, “Conditions of Participation,” on the AAMA website.

delegation, On the Job, Scope of Practice

Delegation Authority of Nurse Practitioners vs. Physician Assistants

If you have been told that different health care professionals share identical authority to delegate to medical assistants, consider the following situation:

A practice management consultant is telling us that medical assistants working under the authority of a nurse practitioner (NP) have the identical scope of practice as medical assistants working under a physician assistant (PA). Is that legally accurate? The consultant is saying that this is the case because the educational and licensing requirements for NPs and PAs are the same.

The medical assisting scope of practice under nurse practitioner authority is not necessarily the same as the scope of practice under physician assistant authority. Nurse practitioners are governed by the state nurse practice act and the regulations of the state board of nursing, whereas physician assistants are governed by the physician assistant practice act (which is sometimes part of the medical practice act) and the regulations of the state board of medical examiners. Consequently, the NP legal delegation authority in a state often differs significantly from the PA legal delegation authority in the same state.

And although the educational and testing requirements for NPs and PAs are similar, they are not identical. I have read articles asserting that the “nursing model” under which NPs are trained is very different from the “medical model” under which PAs are trained. This is a debatable point. However, it is indisputable that the tasks delegable to unlicensed allied health professionals such as medical assistants by NPs and PAs practicing in the same state are sometimes very different.

Scope of Practice

Is Medical Assisting Governed by State Law or Federal Law?

Like most other health professions, medical assisting is governed primarily by state law. This is due to the wording of the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Because the power to regulate professions and occupations is not delegated to the United States Congress in Article I of the Constitution, it remains within the sovereign authority of each state. This authority includes establishing education and credentialing prerequisites for the practice of a profession, delineating legal and ethical responsibilities for the professionals, and issuing and enforcing disciplinary standards for breaches of these responsibilities.

Therefore, the legal scope of practice of medical assistants (which is coterminous with the legal authority of licensed health care providers to delegate to medical assistants) is established by state legislation, regulations and policies of state boards that regulate health professionals who delegate to medical assistants, and common law principles arising from court decisions and usual and customary practice. Federal law, however, sometimes impacts medical assisting scope of practice. The meaningful use regulations of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) are a current and significant example. Federal statute and CMS rule require a certain percentage of medication/prescription, laboratory, and diagnostic imaging orders to be entered into the computerized provider order entry (CPOE) system by licensed health care professionals or “credentialed medical assistants” in order for a licensed eligible professional to receive incentive payments under the Medicaid Electronic Health Record (EHR) Incentive Program.