As the world adjusted to a new reality during 2020, Jazmine Santos was adjusting to her new job as a pediatric medical assistant at the Community Health Center.
She said she rarely worked with children during her clinical rounds at CHC in Meriden while studying to become a medical assistant. In addition, she entered the medical field in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, she was adjusting to her new job at the CHC location in Hartford and managing panicking patients, family, friends and herself.
"Working in a pandemic with parents who were scared out of their minds for their kids, it's very stressful because we have to reassure them that we know what we're doing," she said. "We were learning ourselves on what was the correct procedure and how to protect ourselves against COVID."
Santos spent 2018 in CHC's intensive medical assistant education, the National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement (NIMAA). Soon after graduating in 2019, Santos found a job with CHC in Hartford.
Even though Santos said she was nervous, she went into this new stage of her life confidently because of her education at NIMAA. She has since fallen in love with her job.
"We know this is difficult, but it just felt right," she said. "I got really passionate about helping people."
To further expand, CHC recently received $385,724 in America Rescue Plan funding to support 15 Meriden residents pursuing a career as a medical assistant through their NIMAA training at the city's CHC location, said Mary Blankson, CHC's Chief Nursing Officer and NIMAA's clinical director.
"There's so many opportunities in healthcare, and for a lot of folks they can't necessarily afford to go to a four-year degree program right away because they have a family to raise. Making an income and having access to insurance and all those other things are going to be really important for them. So, this could be a really great opportunity."
She also added they are already accepting applications for the next academic year, which runs from March to October. What is NIMAA?
Medical assistants, also known as clinical assistants, are individuals in medical offices and clinics supporting the work of physicians and other medical professionals, according to Indeed.
Some responsibilities include taking medical histories, explaining the treatment, preparing patients for exams and performing lab tests. In addition, they ensure that everything is ready when the doctor comes in to examine the patient.
"The medical assistant is the first clinical staff member that comes out to introduce themselves and welcomes them into the clinic spaces, which is a very vulnerable space," said Blankson. "Not only are [medical assistants] sensitive and supportive and protect privacy, but they are really smart and wonderful individuals that prepare the visit for the provider."
Founded in 2016, NIMAA is a nonprofit academy looking to train a new generation of medical assistants and address the ongoing worker shortage in primary care.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects that in primary care, physician shortages would range between 21,400 and 55,200 physicians by 2033.
The program was created by CHC and Salud Family Health Centers in Colorado and accepted its first 13 students in August 2016. Now, NIMAA hosts 50 clinical externships in 16 states and enrolls over 200 students a year.
NIMAA's curriculum takes 29 weeks to complete and includes online learning, in-clinic shifts (also called externships) and lab skill courses.
Blankson explained that a critical aspect of NIMAA is its affordability and ensuring students graduate with as little debt as possible.
"There are many opportunities in healthcare and for a lot of folks, maybe they can't necessarily afford to go to a four-year degree program right away because they have a family to raise and making an income," Blankson said.
The Association of American Medical Colleges reported that nearly three in four medical students graduated with debt in 2019, with a median loan of $200,000.
Meanwhile, the total cost to attend NIMAA is $6,785, which includes the application fee, tuition and books. In addition, NIMAA also offers financial aid and scholarships to help further eligible students who don't have the means to pay. NIMAA in Meriden
The center provides 15 eligible applicants with a full scholarship for Meriden residents. According to the CHC's funding proposal, the scholarship would be applied to any fees, tuition and books. The money can also be used to remove any financial barriers, such as covering childcare for student-parents.
Blankson said that NIMAA is currently accepting applications for spring 2023 cohorts. Although anyone 18 years or older is welcome to apply for the scholarship, applicants must have a high school diploma and meet United Way's ALICE criteria, which identifies an individual's income level.
She explained that their goal with the NIMAA Meriden scholarship is to open doors to careers in the medical field without the burden of debt while also addressing the ongoing healthcare worker shortage.
According to the state's Department of Labor, Meriden has a 4.2% unemployment rate.
Blankson said that training as a medical assistant could open many doors for someone.
Connecticut healthcare has the largest workforce sector, making up 16% of all jobs in the state, reported the state's Health Care Cabinet. In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the employment of medical assistants would grow 16% faster than the average growth of all other jobs.
Many of the NIMAA graduates are immediately hired by CHC, said Blankson. In addition, they hope to develop partnerships with Meriden public entities, such as the schools, to create a job pipeline for graduates.
"It's an opportunity for us to give training and education to vulnerable populations. To support them to gain employment where they can make a living wage to support their families and dream big dreams." Curriculum
Santos graduated from NIMAA in 2019.
She said the first two weeks of the curriculum were completely online and prepared her class for what to expect when they started this externship. The online courses also provided an opportunity to connect with other future medical assistants in other states.
She said she worked with three professors in three different medical fields during the clinical rounds.
She also explained that working directly with the community exposed her to various situations and circumstances she needed to navigate. For example, on the first day of the externship at the Meriden CHC, Santos said she was one of three people holding down a screaming child refusing to get a flu shot.
However, Santos said she loved the hands-on experience and working with a diverse community. Also, her NIMAA classmates and professors always supported and encouraged Santos to continue moving forward.
"If I can do it again, I would, which sounds crazy for most people," she said. "I wish [my CHC professors] can see the type of person [NIMAA] helps create now because I'm so different now from two years ago."
Although Santos said she plans to work in pediatrics, for now, her ultimate goal is to be a labor and delivery nurse or an ultrasound tech. It was a field she fell in love with while at NIMAA and she hopes to continue exploring that profession.
"My goal is to go back to school, test the waters and see what I want to do and just keep moving forward," she said. "Once you become a medical assistant, there's just a lot of things you can do."