Connecting with patients as paraoptometrics

September 28, 2021
George Ballato, CPOA, first began his work with an AOA-member doctor as the Spanish interpreter for patients—and that inclusivity has made all the difference for patients and his career.
George Ballato, CPOA

Photography by Jamey Guy

Excerpted from page 14 of the September/October 2021 edition of AOA Focus.

The 2021 AOA Paraoptometric of the Year, George Ballato, CPOA, is a champion for eye care in his community.

Ballato is a paraoptometric at Open Cities Health Center, a community health center serving the Twin Cities in Minnesota. At the clinic, Ballato is an asset to patients and staff.

“There are many community members who have come to see me over the years because of George’s advocacy for our profession. He fully understands the important role we have to play in not only the patient’s ocular health but systemic health as well. There are a lot of people who could be trained to be a paraoptometric assistant and who could do a good job. However, you can’t teach someone how to be a wonderful human being and to truly care about others and the community,” says Matthew Bauer, O.D., who previously worked with Ballato.

In an excerpt from AOA Focus, Ballato talks about patient connection.

You came to optometry via a circuitous route ... how did your journey unfold?

I went to the University of Wisconsin, and I majored in biotechnology with an emphasis in the medical field. Back then, there were a lot of these little upstart biotech companies that were here today and gone the next. But I ended up working at a research lab at the University of Minnesota in the college of medicinal chemistry. It was a lot of technical stuff, and I was more of a people person. I then got into medical interpreting. I am bilingual [he speaks Spanish, learned from his mother, who is from Cuba] and that was really rewarding. With my background in science and medical terminology/language, I started interpreting throughout the metro area in optometry, dentistry, general medicine, neurology—just about any medical discipline you can think of.

But you landed on optometry?

Interpreting is how I met Dr. Matthew Bauer, who was the optometrist at Open Cities Health Center. This is where the stars aligned. I noticed Dr. Bauer’s bedside manner and his approach to health care; I thought: this is the way it should be. He genuinely cared about his patients. He was able to coordinate the findings in the eye department with other issues patients might be having, whether it was diabetes or hypertension. I kept taking as many jobs as I could at Open Cities and its eye department. I started to shadow his technician and, to provide better service, I started doing a little more studying and reading on my own, focusing more on optometry. About five years later his technician left, and Dr. Bauer and I developed a good relationship. He said, “I really like the way you treat people. I like your background and expertise.” I still had to get certified and apply for the position, but I jumped at the opportunity. I told my wife what a dream job it would be to work for this guy. [Dr. Bauer has since left the clinic.]

What do you love about working at Open Cities?

It feels like home, like this is where I belong. I want to help others and populations that really need it the most.

What is your philosophy on connecting with patients?

I want to take somebody who’s been marginalized or someone in a new place or country who may be frightened and not know the language, and I want to make them feel as if they just walked into their cousin’s place. Have a seat. You are the VIP. You’re the most important person in the room. You’re my guest, and I’m going to be respectful. I’m going to be compassionate and humble. I want you to feel comfortable. We really want to take care of you, and we want to know about you.

Celebrate Paraoptometric Appreciation Month

The only formal observance dedicated to honor optometric practice staff, Paraoptometric Appreciation Month is a time for doctors to honor their staff and for paraoptometrics to advance their careers. Download and print items to display in your office, on your website, social media and share in your community. Show us how you honor staff using #AOAParaMonth.

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