There are few professions in the world that call on you to do your job in an RV, but that’s where Catherine Hull found herself a few weeks ago, helping the person who lived inside fill out intake paperwork. If she minds the odd working environment, she certainly doesn’t show it. After all, her role as Central City Concern’s Community Health Outreach Worker (CHOW) has also taken her under bridges and overpasses, into day centers and shelters, and onto most of the streets that form downtown Portland.
“My days are almost always pretty uncertain. A lot of the time, I get a phone call or an email and I’m off to respond at the drop of a hat,” she says. “Once I get to where I’m needed, I can help people figure out the different needs they have.”
CCC’s CHOW program was originally created partly in response to the difficulty of phone outreach to individuals who, though insured, weren’t engaging with our Old Town Clinic or any other primary care clinic, often leaving chronic health conditions unmanaged. Rather, these folks were utilizing the emergency room or acute care services at high rates for needs that could have been taken care of, and even avoided, with a primary care provider.
Calling people wasn’t enough. These potential patients—most unhoused or low-income—didn’t need reminders; they needed relationships to enter into and navigate a health care world that was as confusing as it was untrustworthy. So Catherine started hitting the pavement.
Hospitals contact Catherine when an emergency room patient who they had previously referred to the Old Town Clinic for primary care shows up again and again. Community members phone get in touch when they feel compelled to help someone on the street they see every day. CCC programs like Hooper Detox call her when a patient needs to establish a primary care provider in order to be referred to other programs. As long as there’s someone to meet, she goes.
Through it all, Catherine practices profound empathy. While following through on a primary care appointment may seem like a small task to many, she understands—and hears firsthand—what stands in the way.
“Patients typically have to wait a few weeks after their initial intake to see a provider, and that can clearly be frustrating when we’re asking them to take charge of their health,” Catherine says. “A lot of the time their primary concern isn’t primary care at all; it’s their substance use disorder or mental health or the simple fact that they don’t have a home.”
Lack of transportation, sleep deprivation, fear of being judged by a doctor, and a feeling of stuck in their situation place additional barriers to engaging with primary care. Catherine listens and then does what she can to help each person inch closer to primary care. She performs intakes on the spot, ensuring that the individual can see a provider even sooner. She hands out bus tickets, offers assurances that our care providers truly have heard it all before and are not in the business of judging, and true to her self-given title of “the queen of resources,” offers information that can be of any further help.
“It’s understandable that if someone doesn’t know where they’re sleeping each night, a clinic appointment two weeks from now won’t be at the top of their mind. So we’ll make a plan to look for each other on 4th Ave. every day to check in until the day of the appointment,” she says. “I’m hoping to bring what little bit of the clinic I can take with me to where they are.”
In addition to responding to calls and emails, Catherine holds hours twice a week at CCC’s Bud Clark Acute Care Clinic, which treats acute issues as a bridge until patients feel ready to engage with a primary care home. When a patient feels ready, Catherine is there to seize the moment.
“The ability of our patients to access care has improved markedly by having Catherine do her outreach,” says Pat Buckley, a provider who splits her time between Bud Clark Clinic and Old Town Clinic. “She facilitates people who desperately need to get into a primary care environment very quickly. CHOW’s been an amazing adjunct to CCC’s practice.”
Catherine is aware that the CHOW program won’t result in every person she sees engaging with primary care, but she remains hopeful for each person she meets.
“Of course my goal is to get them excited about primary care, but if I can at least get them to start thinking about it, I’ll take it. I’ll keep trying as hard as I can to help them understand that primary care is a good thing to do, but I’ll always be understanding that there are so many things in the way.”
Until then, Catherine will continue going to where the people who don’t think they’re quite ready for primary care are. An RV one day, an underpass the next, and maybe an ER bed later. All of it is worthwhile as long as the people she meets get closer to setting foot inside Old Town Clinic.