delegation, On the Job, Scope of Practice

Relaying Providers’ Orders by Telephone

Part of the AAMA’s mission is to protect medical assistants’ scope of practice. Sometimes that means gathering evidence to prove that what other health professionals think is a limitation of medical assistants’ scope of practice is unsubstantiated by state law. Consider the following from a medical assistant in Wisconsin:

I work in a small physician-owned clinic. Our primary care providers visit two local skilled nursing facilities each month. … [Does] our state permit nurses to take a provider’s order by telephone that is conveyed by a medical assistant? These telephone orders are always followed up by a written electronic order from the provider. [But] we are being told that nursing home staff will only take telephone orders directly from licensed health professionals.

Why would this be any different from a provider directing one of our medical assistants to convey a normal lab value? Our providers would spend all day calling the nursing homes if medical assistants cannot relay information at the request of the provider. If the nursing home staff members do not understand the order, they can always ask for clarification from one of our providers.

I reviewed the nurse practice act and the regulations and policies of Wisconsin’s state board of nursing. I found nothing stating that registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) are prohibited from receiving and executing orders from a licensed provider (e.g., physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants) that are transmitted verbatim by telephone by an unlicensed allied health professional, such as a medical assistant.

Unless state law specifically indicates otherwise, my legal opinion is that knowledgeable and competent medical assistants are permitted to convey verbatim information (including orders) on behalf of the delegating provider and receive verbatim information for the overseeing provider. Information conveyed by telephone should be followed up by a written order (electronic or hard copy).

delegation, On the Job, Scope of Practice

Standing Orders and Supervision Requirements

I welcome further questions about my blog posts because addressing those questions allows me to dive deeper into a pertinent topic for medical assistants who wish to better understand their scope of practice.

For instance, in response to my blog post “Standing Orders from an Overseeing Provider,” I received the following question:

Does a standing order change the supervision requirements for medical assistants? For example, if our state law requires the delegating licensed provider to be on the premises when a medical assistant is performing venipuncture, is this supervision requirement changed by a standing order from the provider?

A standing order does not change the supervision requirement established by state law. The supervision requirements apply regardless of whether the licensed provider issues a standing order, verbal order, or written order. If this were not the case, a provider could circumvent supervision requirements by issuing standing orders instead of verbal orders.

The purpose of supervision requirements is patient protection.

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.

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.

delegation, On the Job, Scope of Practice

Delegation from Varying Licensed Providers

Determining whether you are successfully working within your legal scope of practice as a medical assistant requires recognizing some situational nuances, especially on the matter of delegation. The following demonstrates one such instance:

I work in an outpatient practice setting. At times, I work under the authority and supervision of a physician. At other times, I work under the authority of a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. I have been informed that my legal scope of practice is the same regardless of which licensed provider is assigning tasks to me. Is this correct?

Not necessarily. Under the laws of most states, the medical assistants’ scope of practice is determined by the practice act and regulations of the delegating provider.

For example, the nurse practice act and the regulations and policies of the state’s board of nursing determine which tasks nurses (including advanced practice registered nurses [APRNs], such as nurse practitioners) are permitted to delegate to medical assistants.

On the other hand, the medical practice act and the regulations and policies of the state’s board of medical examiners delineate which duties physicians are allowed to assign to medical assistants. And physician assistant delegation authority is established by other state statutes, regulations, and policies.

There are legal nuances that must be taken into consideration. Some states permit nurse practitioners to work autonomously and without a collaborative practice agreement with a physician. In these states the delegation authority of autonomous nurse practitioners is determined by the nurse practice act and the rules of the board of nursing.

However, nurse practitioners in an independent-practice state may choose to work under physician authority and supervision, and physicians may assign nurse practitioners to oversee medical assistants who are performing tasks delegated to them by a physician. In such a case, both the medical practice act and the nurse practice act may have a bearing on the scope of practice of a medical assistant.