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Portland certified medical assistant delivers coordinated care

Becky Wilkinson
When a parent phones Paula Williams about their sick child, her standard answer is: "Yes, you can bring him in. We'll see him right away."

October 31, 2011 - When parents call Portland's Northeast Health Center or show up with a sick child, the first person they likely speak with is Paula Williams. From then on, Williams is the personal link between that family and the pediatric team.

"Our goal is continuity of care, to make sure patients continue to see the same provider," Williams says. And that no one goes to the high-cost emergency room for primary care they could've received at the clinic.

As a certified medical assistant, Williams' role supports Oregon health transformation's goals of the right care at the right time while keeping down costs. She wears a lot of hats — traffic cop, team manager, telephone triage specialist, record-keeper — and the multitasking job is the glue that binds the staff with its diverse clientele for the best coordination of care.

Teaming up for better health

Certified medical assistants, or CMAs, are crucial to team-based care at the Northeast Health Center, says Michael Crocker, clinic manager. "They are the first set of eyes and ears to see and hear what's going on with that patient."

The beauty of the team-based approach, he says, is that it "allows for strong patient relationships to develop between the patients and the teams that support their health care. The CMAs are golden in this role."

The Northeast Health Center, part of Multnomah County Health Department's network of primary care clinics, has four teams — two for family practice, one strictly for adults and one for children. Williams has worked with all four, but currently is assigned to the pediatric team, which also includes a doctor, a physician assistant or nurse practitioner, and two nurses.

Can-do attitude

When a parent calls about their sick child, Williams' standard answer is: "Yes, you can bring him in. We'll see him right away." The clinic sees such "added patients" every day — children, for example, with a fever, cough, allergies or breathing problems from asthma.

Williams knows that if the pediatric team doesn't examine that sick child right away, the parent may head for a hospital emergency room, the most expensive place for such care.

"If one of our patients goes to the ER, I follow-up and see what happened and make sure they don't go again unless it's a true emergency," she says. Williams enjoys working with the clinic's diverse clientele, including growing numbers of Latino, Russian and Somali patients.

"I listen and I let them talk," says Williams, who's fluent in Spanish. For some patients, she adds, "if you don't smile, they don't trust you.

"And if your patients don't trust you, it doesn't matter how hard you work."