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Robust Washington County partnership creates job opportunities in healthcare

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For many students, Portland Community College is a bridge to the middle class. Working closely with industry and social service partners, PCC provides education and training that helps people move from minimum wage jobs into living wage, family supporting careers. 

In 2019, Community Action, which is a Washington County-based nonprofit, launched a pilot program called Whole Family Approach to support the parents and guardians of children enrolled in local Head Start programs with healthcare career training. Powered by a robust partnership between Community Action, PCC’s Community Workforce Development and Institute for Health Professionals, the Department of Human Services, Worksystems and the Oregon Employment Department, Whole Family Approach helped a cohort of Head Start parents enter PCC’s Patient Access Specialist Online Training Program during the 2019-20 academic year. 

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Willow Creek Becomes an Opportunity Center

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a double-digit increase in unemployment and exacerbated opportunity, education and economic gaps across Washington County and Oregon. In December, the Bank of America Neighborhood Builders awarded PCC $200,000 to establish an Opportunity Center at the Willow Creek Center. Prospective students and job seekers can find a one-stop-shop location for workforce development and re-skilling courses, access to support services and will have the opportunity to meet with potential employers.

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Patient access specialists are the frontline registration personnel that are often the first face a person sees when they enter a hospital, clinic, or specialized medical department. From signing in patients to completing insurance forms, a patient access specialist plays an important role in the business side of the hospital or clinic while also serving a key customer service function.

“These students were women, many of them single mothers, who had already faced many challenges in life,” said PCC Career Advisor Eduardo Garnica. “The majority had never taken online courses before.” 

After dropping off children at Head Start, the cohort met at PCC’s Willow Creek Center in Hillsboro. There they received crucial “on-ramp” services during the first term from PCC’s Community Workforce Development team with support from staff at the Rock Creek Campus. These services included training on how to access and navigate the online learning platform, study skills, plus behavioral cognitive skills to foster long-term academic and professional success. 

During the winter term of 2019-20, the cohort focused on completing the “Medical Terminology” course, continuing to meet at the Willow Creek Center so that a PCC staff person was on hand to answer questions and provide technical support as needed. The group was set to begin the Patient Access Specialist Program at Willow Creek in the spring of 2020, before PCC was forced to close its facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved operations online.  

“It took a lot of work to secure technology for the students and several were unable to complete the program due to childcare challenges or a need to provide greater support to their families,” Garnica said. “Despite everything, however, nine students persevered and finished the program with the skills and certification necessary to start their healthcare career.”

While each of the nine graduates earned their Certified Healthcare Access Associate (CHAA) certification, patient access manager for Kaiser Permanente and instructor Gloria Durant said the PCC program emphasized real-world skills and knowledge. 

“We wanted them to get their certification, but also to learn what the expectations are and connect the dots between knowledge and what you do every day in the field,” Durant said. 

In the end, Durant said the graduates overcame their lack of medical experience and robust professional background with an inspired effort. 

“They wanted it,” she said. “They wanted to learn. They wanted to succeed. I had some that were dealing with some serious stuff at home and they kept pressing. They were diligent and never gave up. I’m proud of the work they did.”

Nicole Usery of Southwest Portland learned about the cohort from a Community Action staff member while enrolling her son in their local Head Start. She said completing the program will forever changed her approach to education. 

“I didn’t have an opportunity to graduate high school, so I was super proud of myself for sticking with the cohort and completing it,” Usery said. “The impact it has made for my family is immense. I now have an attitude to teach my son that education and learning new skills can be fun and worth your time.” 

Though she had to postpone her job search in order to help her son attend school remotely, Usery said she is confident that she will soon be able to pick up where she left off. 

“I know that when I’m able to start looking for work again, I have a solid set of skills I’ve learned and an awesome team of people to help me in my search,” she said.

For more information on the Patient Access Specialist Program, visit its webpage.

About Alfredo V. Moreno

Alfredo joined PCC in September of 2018 as the community relations manager for the Rock Creek Campus in Washington County. Born in the border city of El Paso, Texas, Alfredo grew up in the timber town of Roseburg in Southern Oregon before e... more »

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