A unique, pilot apprenticeship program designed to address the serious shortage of medical assistants in Greater Cincinnati has graduated its first 10 students with a perfect pass rate on their certification exams.

Mercy Health, The Health Collaborative and Cincinnati State launched the Medical Assistant Apprenticeship program to help fill a crucial need for health care roles in the community. The program gives talented employees a chance to grow both their skills and careers with the support of their employer. 

The most recent data from The Health Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati showed a nearly 12 percent vacancy rate for medical assistants in the region's major health systems. That translates into hundreds of job openings.  

“We wanted to start a program that tapped the hearts of individuals who have a passion for patient care but did not have the opportunity or finances to support the education required to be in a clinical position,” says Mercy Health Physicians – Cincinnati Chief Operating Officer Courtney Seitz. “The Medical Assistant Apprenticeship program doesn’t only provide individuals an opportunity to grow, it also gives us a steady clinical pool of staff to fill needed positions in a strained healthcare staffing market.”

Mercy Health employs program participants as apprentice medical assistants while they complete their training. Ten apprentices completed the program, including eight from Mercy Health and two from another health system, earning a 100% pass rate on the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) exam. All of the newly minted Mercy Health Medical Assistants have accepted or are in the process of accepting positions with Mercy Health Physicians – Cincinnati.

Heather Maggard is one of those graduates. Formerly a registrar with Mercy Health – Anderson Family Medicine, she’s now a certified medical assistant supporting a physician assistant in the practice. The fact that Mercy Health employed her while she trained made it possible for her to earn her certification.

“A week before I learned about the Medical Assistant Apprenticeship program, I looked at another medical apprentice program available in Cincinnati. I couldn’t do it. They only had day classes available and I couldn’t quit my job,” says Maggard. “This program was perfect for me. I kept my job for my family and I was working while I studied.”

"This pilot showed how well the apprenticeship model can work in healthcare," said Cheryl Brackman, director of Cincinnati State's Workforce Development Center. "We see it as a great model for other career pathways in healthcare where there are shortages of workers." 

The Medical Assistant Apprenticeship program is based on a program developed at Arapahoe Community College as part of federal grant. The partners adapted the program to meet the unique needs of the region. 

"It is such a successful program because it has been employer led and Cincinnati State has been hugely responsive to their needs," said Hope Arthur, director of Workforce Innovation for The Health Collaborative.  "The exciting thing is that we have a second cohort beginning in January that will be double the size of the pilot." 

Apprentices who successfully complete the program can earn up to 18 college credits that can count toward continuing their education and further building their careers. 

"Having this program be eligible for college credit was important to the group," Arthur said.

Medical assistants work in hospitals, medical practices and other health care facilities supporting doctors by taking down patients’ medical histories, health concerns, vital signs and more. They serve as patient advocates and help patients secure prescriptions, assist with examinations, perform outpatient testing and schedule appointments and tests. They also code and bill insurance forms and provide patient education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for medical assistants will grow 19% by 2029. 

The Medical Assistant Apprenticeship program is a twelve-month intensive, rigorous, and competency-based program. Apprentices undergo technical instruction provided through Cincinnati State and, for those employed by Mercy Health, on-the-job learning at Mercy Health locations during their apprenticeship. They also complete self-led study time. During the apprenticeship, apprentices must complete at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of related technical instruction. A preceptor supervises apprentices during on the job training. 

Mercy Health’s next group of Medical Assistant Apprentices will begin their studies in January.