| County health clinics focus on quality care, efficiency under watch of health industry veteran
With her experience in health systems administration, Vanetta Abdellatif is at the helm of creating lasting and sustainable change in delivering care to communities of color and underserved segments in Multnomah County.
As the Director of Integrated Clinical Services at the Multnomah County Health Department, Vanetta oversees medical, dental, school-based health centers, as well as ancillary services such as radiology, laboratory, WIC and more.
More recently, Vanetta was in charge of leading the county’s Electronic Medical Records (EMR) Implementation Team, which worked to bring information systems in place for area clinics. Protecting health records and operational efficiency were the main drivers to implementing EMRs in county clinics.
Geographically, Multnomah County is the smallest Oregon county, yet it contains approximately 20 percent of the state's population due to the high density found in Portland and the surrounding cities. Its diverse population includes 10 percent Latino; 6 percent Black; and 6 percent Asian (2005 U.S. Census Bureau estimates).
Managing the county’s health clinics to enhance services to a diverse population has been rewarding for Vanetta, who has always followed her passion for health care. Her undergraduate coursework consisted of courses toward a degree in physical therapy. After working as a staff member for a health care administrator, Vanetta soon found her niche.
“As a health care administrator, one has a systemic approach about impacting health outcomes. I realized that I wanted to have more of an impact on a larger cluster of people, thus my interest in public health,” she said.
After obtaining her master’s in public health degree from San Diego State University, Vanetta spent two years with Kaiser Foundation Hospital as an administrative fellow, she then left California to manage health facilities for Catholic Health Corp. That work soon led her back to the West Coast – in Portland, where she began working for Legacy Health System, as an administrator for a program that provided residential treatment for substance-abusing African-American women. “That was a very interesting job. Part of the reason why I got into health care was to make a difference among people of color I felt that I made a lot of difference,” she said.
Transitioning to Providence Health System, Vanetta managed two family practice clinics whose patients are enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid health plan. When Providence Health Plans ceased taking OHP patients for a short period of time, Vanetta became familiar with services offered by CareOregon, the largest OHP administrator in the state.
“Our providers really liked working with CareOregon. They talked about how well they understood the clientele, and about how it’s a big help that CareOregon would always step up to help manage care for patients,” she said.
In 2001, Vanetta joined Multnomah County as Director of Primary Care Services. She moved into her current role, following a countywide reorganization. “Our goal was to position ourselves to have a more integrated model, and to create a structure that supported that.”
Vanetta notes that transitioning to the nonprofit world and the public sector from working in private corporations was an interesting experience. “There aren’t many people of color in health care leadership. This is particularly interesting, especially in an organization that provides care for low-income women and children – many of whom are people of color. I think that’s changing. New and established leaders are beginning to recognize why it’s important to have people in leadership roles reflect the diversity of our patients.”
Vanetta says that she is “encouraged” by the growing interest among health professionals about how health disparities impact low-income, as well as people of color, particularly the youth. “There are many environmental health risks for low-income children. If we don’t continue to work toward turning that around, we’re going to have a lot of young people that aren’t going to be as healthy or as ready to take on leadership or work roles in the future.”
For Vanetta, advocating for the health care needs of disadvantaged and underserved communities is central to her work. Her cultural background plays an important role in her effectiveness at working toward improving health care access for all county residents.
“I have a deep understanding of the communities that we serve. I grew up in the African-American community and went through poverty as a young child,” she says. “What I bring is some empathy and openness from having had that cultural experience. I ask questions that maybe somebody else may not ask, because I see the issue from a different perspective.”
In addition to her role at the county, Vanetta also is chair of the governing board for the Oregon Primary Care Association (OPCA). The group provides advocacy on public policy and assistance to members to help decrease health disparities and increase access to comprehensive health care for low-income and vulnerable people in Oregon. Vanetta has served on the OPCA board for four years, and took on the chair position this year. She is the first African-American woman to lead the organization.
“OPCA has been a support for communities we serve through safety net and community health centers. My role is to help us strengthen our visibility in Salem, and that we’re able to make some changes that will have a positive impact on our financial sustainability for community health centers, and also our ability to continue to provide quality care for people that we serve,” she said.