Medical Assisting Week is a chance to care for a caregiver | Opinion

By Nikki Marhefka

“Can you please step on the scale?”

Most of us dread this prelude to our doctor’s appointment, especially if we’ve been binging on our favorite football fare and the Halloween candy we profess to have bought for the neighborhood’s trick-or-treaters.

Still, the data gained from a weigh-in by a trained medical assistant can signal a serious health issue tied to rapid weight loss or gain, such as major depression, an eating disorder, a metabolic disease or advanced cancer.

And when that blood pressure cuffs tightens its grip around your arm, the medical assistant following that twitching silver needle is also gathering key data about your cardiac health for your health care practitioner to review, interpret and possibly treat.

Although you may be in that setting primarily to see the doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner, the front-line health care team member who gathers these meaningful numbers is critical. Also critical is the need for these medical assistants, especially as we slowly recover from the unprecedented strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation it spawned.

It is a need that Central Penn College has powered up its resources to meet in recent years.

As the Program Chair of the Medical Assisting program, I am fortunate to be part of a team dedicated to teaching not only vital clinical and administrative skills, but modeling empathy, compassion and concern. We are blessed to have partnerships with UPMC as well, to help place our medical assisting graduates in health care settings rapidly and keep the “care” in health care.

Medical assistants perform a variety of clinical and administrative duties, including checking and recording vital signs; taking a complete medical history; administering medications; assisting the provider with minor office procedures; and drawing blood.

Central Penn College offers an associate degree in Medical Assisting, along with associate degrees in Occupational Therapy Assistant and Physical Therapist Assistant.

The 12-month, 30-credit Medical Assisting Diploma program requires nine months of coursework and a three-month internship.

While technical skills are important, we work to ensure that our medical assistants treat each patient with respect, empathy and dignity. We know many patients are nervous about their doctor’s visit, and we are there to be a friendly, welcoming, positive, and understanding entryway into the office. We are trained to treat patients with respect and dignity, with supreme sensitivity to a disability, one’s culture and one’s socioeconomic status.

In our program, we teach everything from health care terminology and health insurance plans, to communications skills and cultural barriers.

In the 20 years I have been teaching at Central Penn College, I have never seen the demand for medical assistants as strong as it is now.

We are fortunate to have an innovative agreement with UPMC and UPMC Pinnacle Foundation. It started with our Surgical Technician Program, which allowed students who successfully complete the program and are hired by UPMC to receive payments equivalent to the full cost of the programs, in addition to their salary. We now extend this initiative for students seeking careers in the fields of Medical Assisting and Phlebotomy.

In this way, we can provide a high-quality education in a high-demand field at potentially no final cost to the student.

As an added benefit, students also can work in a variety of full- and part-time positions that can accommodate their studies.

Central Penn College also is making the CPC Housing Scholarship––valued at $5,800 a year–– available to all qualifying medical assisting enrollees who attend full-time.

To see what is required to enroll, visit

As we enter the week of October 17 to 24 — Medical Assisting Week– I often celebrate my 60-plus students with cupcakes or small gifts, as a small gesture to remind them how valuable they are.

When you go to your next doctor’s appointment, I hope you will join me in thanking a medical assistant. You probably don’t know their names or the hurdles they overcame to get into those scrubs. Thanks to these often-overlooked front-line heroes , doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and nurses can do their jobs more efficiently, and diagnose conditions more accurately.

As we often say, medical assistants make everything better.

Nikki Marhefka is Program Director of Medical Assisting at Central Penn College.

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Jorge Oliveira

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