Classroom training for medical assistants gives students the foundation of knowledge they need for success. But in health care, no two days are ever alike. Each presents new challenges, and the time spent in school isn’t always enough to expose students to the realities of the job world.
One way today’s vocational school programs help overcome that is with student externships. Externships not only give medical assistants a better understanding of their role at the heart of the health care team, but they also open the door to professional opportunities.
What Is an Externship?
An externship is a short, hands-on training program that, as part of a vocational school education, takes place in a real-world setting. Schools partner with businesses willing to allow students the opportunity to work side-by-side with experienced peers. For medical assisting students, most externships take place in a doctor’s office, clinic, lab, or urgent care center.
Most externships usually last at least a few weeks, and students are not paid. Attendance is taken, and grades are earned. Occasionally, externships occur in the first weeks of training, but most come in the final semester.
The goal is to help familiarize upcoming graduates with the general environment they’ll soon be working in. Students have the opportunity to practice essential clinical skills, as well as observe how members of the health care team interact. They can also make rewarding professional connections that will help them in their careers.
The Benefits of an Externship
There are many benefits for a medical assistant student to participate in an externship. They include experiences in different environments, gaining confidence and experience, polishing soft skills, making connections, and finding a mentor.
Health care is a dynamic, evolving field, and there are more opportunities than ever for medical assistants. Some students may have chosen a career in health care with a particular specialty in mind, but graduates have choices.
Medical assistants can work in a variety of settings from hospitals to private practices. But without experience, it’s tough to know what type of environment their skills are best suited for. Pediatrics, geriatrics, and maternal and child health are popular specialties. But more than one student has learned through the externship experience that a position they thought they’d enjoy isn’t for them.
Externships are a time for discovery. A medical assistant is trained to handle both clinical and administrative tasks, but not all employers utilize these skills the same way. Some jobs are almost exclusively clinical, while others are mostly clerical. Externships give students a better idea of what they’ll be doing in specific settings, allowing them to apply for jobs that best fit their skills, aptitudes, and preferences.
Externships give students a chance to practice what they’ve learned in the classroom. A student pretending to be a patient in a simulated encounter is one thing. Interacting with an actual patient is different. Suddenly, the student, not the instructor, is responsible for the outcome.
An externship is a bridge between the classroom and the real world. It’s a safe space where soon-to-be medical assistants can ask questions and complete tasks independently, but with the security of supervision. Externships help students work through the anxiety of being new, so they feel confident from day one on their first job.
Skills from previous work might be transferable, but employers prefer applicants who can hit the ground running.
A vocational school diploma gives job seekers an advantage, but a successfully completed externship is even more valuable. A reference from a fellow provider who has seen the applicant in action shines on a résumé.
Polishing Soft Skills
Building strong interpersonal relationships with patients and colleagues requires soft skills that can’t be learned from a book. Medical assistants are expected to be the utmost professionals, but sometimes the rules aren’t clear.
Health care offices are a little different than other workplaces. Patients come from all backgrounds, and most are emotionally and physically vulnerable. They require a gentle approach. Sensitivity and good communication skills are a must. Externships are an excellent way to watch how seasoned professionals interact with challenging clients.
Similarly, because medical assistants are at the center of the health care team, they’ll need to communicate with colleagues with both lesser and greater professional standing. For first-time medical assistants, it can be intimidating. There’s a learning curve, but an externship can help ease the way.
Getting to know the right people in the health care field is the key to professional development and finding that perfect first job. Whom should students get to know?
Getting to Know Instructors
Instructors with top-tier skills necessary to teach others are usually well known in the community. Most have worked in other aspects of the health care field, and they’re connected. Some may have helped generations of students through externships at local practices, and satisfied employers value their recommendations.
Instructors are also well-positioned to help students identify professional strengths and weaknesses. With feedback, soon-to-be graduates can look for ways to improve their performance in critical areas or embrace a career path that’s strength centric.
Working with Career Advisors
Vocational school career advisors are front-line recruiters for health care practices needing top-notch medical assistants. They know which practices and facilities have regular hiring needs, and they can give students insight into what to expect from potential employers. Working with instructors, they can also facilitate connections with organizations based on a student’s strengths.
Liaising with Peers and Professionals
Experts suggest that up to eighty percent of available job openings may never be seen by the public. Most are filled internally or by external applicants who come recommended by current employees.
During an externship, medical assistants can rub elbows with both peers and the professionals who hired them. Making a good impression opens doors to opportunities others may never have even known existed.
Getting to know the names of coworkers and asking for permission to stay in touch is a must. Students should make a point to introduce themselves to the entire team while remembering that in the career world, it’s always not what you know, but who you know.
Joining Student and Professional Organizations
Joining a national student medical organization such as the Health Occupations Student Association, or HOSA, is a great way to get noticed. With the help of licensed instructors, this group holds blood pressure screenings, immunization clinics, and similar activities that benefit the community.
Because health care facilities such as hospitals often sponsor these events, it’s an ideal way for a new medical assistant to meet potential employers. Students can polish their skills while meeting some of the very people they may later work with during an externship.
Finding a Mentor
Health care is a vast field. What a medical assistant learns in school is just the tip of the iceberg. New graduates entering the workforce need to learn the ropes of real-world practice in a hurry while simultaneously developing positive relationships with the peers, patients, and professionals they work with. It can feel like an uphill battle.
One way to ease the stress is to work with a mentor. What exactly is a mentor? A mentor is a positive career role model. In the classroom, instructors serve as examples. But after graduation, a new medical assistant needs someone with similar expertise to turn to for guidance. Externships present an excellent opportunity for students to connect with someone whose on-the-job skills they admire.
What makes a good mentor? The best mentors are experienced and willing to help others learn not only with the practical aspects of their job responsibilities but also with how to connect with colleagues. During their externship, students should enlist the help of those who have the clinical proficiency and people skills they want to develop. It’s the first step to a lifetime of professional growth.
Other Tips for a Successful Externship
An externship is a time for learning. Based on a supervisor’s evaluation, most are graded. But it’s also a new medical assistant’s professional debut, and it’s vital to make the most of it by keeping these things in mind.
- Arrive on time – Students should be as prompt and prepared as staff.
- Be fully engaged – There’s no room for personal distractions in the workplace. Students should plan to immerse themselves in the learning process.
- Ask questions – An externship is the ideal occasion for a new medical assistant to not only practice clinical skills, but also gain insight into how a health care practice operates. Ask to attend staff meetings, if possible. And talk to everyone on-site from fellow medical assistants to billing specialists to learn what they do and how their jobs fit into the big picture.
- Embrace challenges – Not every student excels at every skill. An externship is a chance for new medical assistants to hone skills they may struggle with before starting a job. Students who are hesitant about drawing blood, for example, should seek any opportunity given them.
- Be open to honest feedback – A medical assistant is responsible for improving his or her skills. Potential employers are always watching, and they appreciate externs who show an interest in improving themselves. By taking charge of the learning process, students demonstrate a strong work ethic and a commitment to the profession.
As part of a quality vocational school training program, an externship is an important opportunity for new medical assistants to find themselves professionally. Students can develop hands-on skills while gleaning insight into health care from those who’ve already spent years in the field. But most importantly, it’s an indispensable way for students to position themselves for job market success.
Did learning about the importance of an externship for medical assistants interest you? Ready for an exciting new career in the medical assisting field?
The Medical Assistant program at Hunter Business School prepares competent, entry-level medical assistants in the cognitive (knowledge), psychomotor (skills), and affective (behavior) learning domains required for professional practice.
The Medical Assistant program provides hands-on experience in a real medical setting where you can foster professional relationships with actual patients. Medical Assistant students spend 160 hours in an externship in a professional medical work environment where they are supervised and taught in order to gain valuable on-the-job training.
Contact us today to find out more about how to become a medical assistant on Long Island.