Like most teens, Traci Riffle had little idea what she wanted to do with her life. But she was interested in biology and health care. On not much more than a whim, she studied medical assisting and, in the process, found a career – and her life’s calling – as a certified medical assistant (CMA).

In 1993 – at just 19 – she graduated from Guilford Technical Community College with an associate degree in medical assisting. CMAs train for three distinct areas of responsibility – administration, lab work (from collection to testing) and clinical care. Like all CMAs, Riffle was schooled in everything from front desk duties to drawing blood to assisting with patient care.

They’re “utility players,” but many CMAs choose one area of focus. “Usually, a CMA is hired into one specific area,” said Riffle, a longtime CMA who joined Novant Health Mountainview Medical in King, North Carolina, earlier this year. 

Traci Riffle mug
Traci Riffle

Originally, she was drawn to the clerical portion of a CMA’s job. But an early mentor recognized Riffle had people skills essential to patient care.

“I’ve always been a nurturer and a fixer of sorts,” Riffle said. “So, patient care really was the right path for me.” She’s done the other CMA “rotations” and said that’s one of the great things about the understaffed field: “You can change jobs within your field. If I ever wanted to go back to the clerical side or the lab side, I could.”

But patient care is her favorite part of the job. “Every day is different,” she said. “Since I work in a family practice, I see patients who are 9 days old up to 99 years old and above. I’ve been at this so long that some of the patients I knew as babies are now grown up, married and have kids of their own. You build trust over those years.”

CMAs needed now

Currently, there’s a CMA shortage – a critical problem in a field that’s expected to explode in the next decade.

“Employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 19% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations,” reads a Sept. 28 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The growth of the aging baby-boom population will continue to increase demand for preventive medical services, which are often provided by physicians, (who) will hire more assistants to perform routine administrative and clinical duties.”  

Joyce Mounce
Joyce Mounce

Since CMAs are needed desperately, it’s a great career choice, said Joyce Mounce, senior director in the greater Winston-Salem market for Novant Health Medical Group Community Health & Wellness Institute. “The education and training certified medical assistants get provides a strong foundation to be successful in either administrative or clinical roles,” she said. “CMAs often fill cross-functional roles within clinics, given their ability to adapt to clinic needs.”

Mounce said the ideal CMA is “compassionate, organized, has excellent communication skills and listens for understanding.” Riffle said prospective CMAs should have these skills:  

• “People person”

• Multitasker

• Good time-manager  

• Organized (“I’ve been accused of being a little OCD,” she said.)

• Think two steps ahead. (“Once you’ve built a relationship with your provider, you should be able to anticipate his or her needs,” she said.)

The best CMAs can become truly indispensable to their practices. Mounce, who was Riffle’s clinic administrator for nine of her 27 years at Novant Health Maplewood Family Medicine in Winston-Salem, called her “the glue that often held Maplewood together.”

Riffle often took it upon herself to do things without anyone asking. “I did a lot of troubleshooting,” she said. “If something was broken, I made sure it was taken care of,” she said. “If it was empty, I filled it. If it was dirty, I cleaned it. Everyone around me knew I was accessible and available to help in any way I could.”

But it’s her easy way with patients that really endears her to everyone. “I like it when patients ask for me by name,” she said. “When I interact with them, I want them to feel like they’re with a friend on the back porch. That’s how I treat them.”