Generating a steady pool of specially qualified medical assistants to support providers and patients at Berkshire Health Systems and its regional network of primary care and specialty medicine offices, is one of the key goals of a workforce development training program that has been launched by BHS, the largest employer in the region.

Hospital and medical offices nationwide are experiencing high staff vacancy and turnover rates, especially in the continuing shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. BHS is addressing the challenge by investing substantial resources – about $7 million – in developing career pipeline programs in high-need clinical areas. Tailored for people who are just starting out or looking for more meaningful work, the goal of the pipeline programs is to create a straight career path from education and training to full-time employment. It’s a strategy aimed at recruiting new employees and alleviating the burden on existing staff. The program is creating new career paths for hundreds of Berkshire County residents in the field of health care.

Nowhere is the need for talented new staff greater than in the role of medical assistants.

“Medical assistants are a vital bridge between our patients and our providers,” said Chris Camillo, BHS’s vice president overseeing the medical group network of primary and specialty care offices throughout Berkshire County. “Because they interact personally with each patient who comes to the office for an appointment, they can make them feel comfortable and in good, caring hands. They also are able to share important information and observations with the attending provider. They’re an essential link.”

Medical assistants perform both administrative duties, such as greeting patients and their families and filing and updating medical records as well as clinical duties like taking vital signs, verifying medications, and generally preparing the patient for examination by the doctor or nurse practitioner.

Participants in the BHS Medical Assistant Training Program receive six months of intensive, on-the-job training from an expert team of medical educators and are eligible to receive full-time medical assistant wages, starting at $18 an hour, as soon as they begin the program. At the conclusion of their training, medical assistants are guaranteed full-time caregiving positions within the BHS network of offices. They receive a complete benefits package, including health, dental and vision. New training classes are offered every quarter.

To apply for the Medical Assistant Training Program or learn more about this and other BHS pipeline programs, please visit www.berkshirehealthsystems.org/careerpipeline.

Kindness is the best medicine of all

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The months of intensive clinical and administrative training Steffany Vargas received as part of the BHS program for medical assistants prepared her well for a role at Hillcrest Family Health in Pittsfield, but at the end of the day, (and the start of it, too) nothing is more important than wearing a friendly smile and showing a face of genuine kindness to each and every patient who comes to the office for medical care.

“I go to work every morning with my happy face,” said Steffany. “They’re not always ready to laugh because you know patients have problems like we all do. But I want to show I’m a happy person, trying to do my best work, trying to help patients the best I can.”

Growing up in Cali, Colombia, Steffany had an early interest in the medical profession since the age of 15, but it wasn’t until she settled in the Berkshires and learned about career opportunities through BMC that she was able to pursue that dream.

Steffany had just completed her training as a Certified Nursing Assistant at BMC when she heard about the medical assistant training program. She was drawn by the idea of working in a doctor’s office, welcoming patients, taking their vital signs, asking them about the medications they’re taking, the reason for their visit today and in other ways preparing them for the doctor or nurse practitioner. It’s a brief, but important, interaction, and Steffany is mindful that her demeanor and professionalism, her kindness and compassion, goes a long way to making the patient experience a positive one. She also takes great pride in her knowledge of medications and values the moments she spends with Hillcrest Family Health providers going over patient-related details.

“I’m really happy what I’m doing. I really love where I am right now,” said Steffany, who shares with anyone who will listen how the BHS training programs have changed her life.

Anything is possible – if you seize the opportunity

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Luis Herrera believes his own experience as a Mexico City native who came to America and the Berkshires in search of a better life for himself and his family is living proof that “anything, everything is possible,” but only if you’re willing to seize the opportunities that come your way. One of the first graduates of the newly instituted training program for medical assistants at BHS, Luis is now proudly assisting the doctors and patients at Cardiology Professional Services of BMC.

“I am one of those [people] who came here with no English, knew nothing about the American culture, nothing about medical skills, and look where I am,” said Luis. “BHS made it possible for me. They believed in my skills and believed in the person I am.”

Like all immigrants to the U.S. who face social and economic barriers to success, Luis worked very hard over many years to make a living for himself and his family, taking whatever jobs he could find. He lived a couple of years in California before moving to the Berkshires in 2020 after visiting a cousin and uncle who lived here and encouraged him to relocate. After several years working kitchen and custodial jobs in the area, his first of many jobs at BMC was in housekeeping, starting in 2008. From there, taking advantage of a series of training opportunities, he became an orderly in critical care at the hospital and later a technician at the BMC Dialysis Center in Pittsfield. No one at BMC who knows Luis was surprised when he became one of the first graduates of the medical assistant program a year ago. His goal is to become a nurse.

“I’ve been feeling so proud to show my kids, even though I’m a little older, that the opportunity is always there, that you never need to give up, that you always need to pursue your dreams,” said Luis. “Opportunities only come once in a while in your life, and if you don’t take them, they are probably never coming again. You have to grab it while it’s there.”

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