Being “low on the totem pole”: What makes work worthwhile for medical assistants in an era of primary care transformation

Alden Yuanhong Lai, Bram P.I. Fleuren, Jennifer Larkin, Lynda Gruenewald-Schmitz, Christina T. Yuan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background Primary care is undergoing a transformation to become increasingly team-based and multidisciplinary. The medical assistant (MA) is considered a core occupation in the primary care workforce, yet existing studies suggest problematic rates and costs of MA turnover. Purpose We investigated what MAs perceive their occupation to be like and what they value in it to understand how to promote sustainable employability, a concept that is concerned with an employee's ability to function and remain in their job in the long term. Approach We used a case of a large, integrated health system in the United States that practices team-based care and has an MA career development program. We conducted semistructured interviews with 16 MAs in this system and performed an inductive analysis of themes. Results Our analysis revealed four themes on what MAs value at work: (a) using clinical competence, (b) being a multiskilled resource for clinic operations, (c) building meaningful relationships with patients and coworkers, and (d) being recognized for occupational contributions. MAs perceived scope-of-practice regulations as limiting their use of clinical competence. They also perceived task similarity with nurses in the primary care setting and expressed a relative lack of performance recognition. Conclusion Some of the practice changes that enable primary care transformation may hinder MAs' ability to attain their work values. Extant views on sustainable employability assume a high bar for intrinsic values but are limited when applied to low-wage health care workers in team-based environments. Practice Implications Efforts to effectively employ and retain MAs should consider proactive communications on scope-of-practice regulations, work redesign to emphasize clinical competence, and the establishment of greater recognition and respect among MAs and nurses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)340-349
Number of pages10
JournalHealth care management review
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2022


  • Health workforce
  • medical assistant
  • primary care
  • sustainable employability
  • turnover

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Leadership and Management
  • Health Policy
  • Strategy and Management


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