On the Job, Professional Identity

Medical Assistants Must Not Refer to Themselves as “Nurses”

Medical assistants must scrupulously avoid conveying the message that they are nursing personnel or members of any profession other than medical assisting.

It is unethical, illegal, and a disservice to the medical assisting profession for medical assistants to refer to themselves as “nurses,” “office nurses,” “doctors’ nurses,” or any other generic term that even remotely implies that medical assistants are nurses.

Review the supporting evidence within excerpts from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing NCSBN Model Act (2012) and several states’ nurse practice acts in the May/June 2019 Public Affairs article, “Medical Assistants Must Not Refer to Themselves as ‘Nurses,’” 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.

Certification and the CMA (AAMA) Credential, medication assistant, On the Job, Professional Identity

Levels of Medical Assisting

Here is an interesting question about “levels” of medical assisting:

I work for a very large cardiology practice in North Carolina. Is it permissible to establish tiers of medical assistants based on their skill sets? For example, are we permitted under North Carolina law to have categories such as Medical Assistant I, Medical Assistant II, Medical Assistant III based on the medical assistant’s education, credentialing, and skill sets?

North Carolina law does not forbid employers from establishing tiers or levels of medical assistants. An employer is allowed to determine what elements of knowledge and skill are required for each category of medical assistants and what tasks should be assigned to medical assistants in the respective categories.

However, these levels should not have “CMA” in their titles. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) has intellectual property rights to the phrase “certified medical assistant” and the initialisms “CMA (AAMA)” and “CMA.”

Titling these classifications as Medical Assistant I, II, III is permitted under North Carolina law and does not infringe on the trademark and intellectual property rights of the AAMA. See the State Scope of Practice Laws webpage on the AAMA website to access key state legislative materials pertaining to medical assisting.

On the Job, Scope of Practice

Scope of Practice near State Borders

I received the following interesting question:

I’m struggling with a difficult question! I am the clinical operations director for a medical group located in Oregon near the Oregon-Washington border. We provide care to Oregon and Washington residents and employ several medical assistants. As you know, Washington law requires certain medical assistants to meet educational and credentialing requirements and to register with the Washington State Department of Health. There are no such requirements for medical assistants under Oregon law.

Do my medical assistants who assist providers treating Washington residents need to meet the medical assisting requirements of the Washington law? All our providers (e.g., physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants) are licensed in Oregon.

The following is my response:

Because you are located in Oregon and the providers are licensed under Oregon law, the governing law is that of Oregon. Therefore, your medical assistants are not required to meet the requirements and register with the Washington State Department of Health. It does not matter that some patients are residents of Washington.

However, if your medical group had another location in Washington, the medical assistants would have to meet the requirements of Washington law to work as medical assistants.