UCSD School of Medicine
Medical Students Reach Out to Care for Uninsured through Free Clinic Project

Ioana Patringenaru | April 9, 2007

One cares for her six grandchildren while fighting off knee and stomach pain. Another lost his job months after being diagnosed with diabetes. Yet another suffers from asthma and heart ailments. None of them has health insurance.

UCSD Student-run Free Clinic Program (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Students, faculty and staff serve more than 1000 patients through the UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project.

Their medical conditions could spell disaster in their already precarious lives. But they, and more than one thousand others, have access to free health care through the UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project. The project specifically targets the working poor and the homeless, who don’t have access to health insurance. Its mission is to create an environment where patients can take charge of their lives and achieve well-being, said Dr. Ellen Beck, the project’s director and a professor at the UCSD School of Medicine.

San Diego County provides a healthcare safety net only for single adults earning less than $1,071 a month, Beck pointed out. Everyone else has to rely on heath insurance provided by their employer – if any. “It saddens me that a country as wealthy as ours hasn’t reached a level of maturity that allows us to realize that heath care is a right,” Beck said. “We need to mature as a nation. I hope we can mature wisely.”


The UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project will celebrate its 10th anniversary at 6 p.m.  April 21, with a dinner and fundraiser at the Price Center Ballroom. Patients aren’t the only ones benefiting, Beck said. Medical school students also learn to become healers who listen to their patients and treat them with respect, she said.

“We’re working together to empower patients,” she added.

UCSD Student-run Free Clinic Program (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
A patient explains her symptoms to students at the Student-run Free Clinic Project.

About 175 medical school students, 100 pre-dental students and 35 pharmacy students are involved in the project at any one time. To work at the clinic, they are required to take a Community Advocacy elective class, which includes five sessions at the free clinic project sites, presentations by community members and opportunities for reflection.

It was a group of medical students who started it all by partnering with faculty and a community program to open a first site in January 1997 at a local Methodist Church in Pacific Beach. Ten patients showed up on the first night.
But the clinic project soon attracted many more and, in October 1997, a second site was opened at the First Lutheran Church downtown. Students also wanted to work with women, children and families. So, a third site opened in October 1998 in partnership with Baker Elementary School in an inner-city neighborhood in southeast San Diego.

The patients

That’s where Mrs. C. gets the care she needs. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, she sat on a bench with her husband and waited to be seen. One of their granddaughters played with her cell phone and another had a snack, then toddled around her grandmother.

“If it wasn’t for this clinic, we would probably be dead,” Mrs. C. said through a translator.

The clinic project helped her get health insurance for one granddaughter, who suffers from kidney problems, she added. Volunteers always try to get health insurance for patients, said Beck. But Mrs. C. doesn’t qualify, so the Baker Elementary site is her only source of care, which she badly needs. She hurt her knee two years ago, and it has been bothering her ever since. She also suffers from chronic gastric problems.

UCSD Student-run Free Clinic Program (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
A patient with her daughter.

Tuesday afternoon, two medical school students saw her. One of them spoke Spanish and translated for his colleague. Then students summarized their findings for an attending physician, who also saw the patient. The physician and the students then consulted with faculty and students from UCSD’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and gave Mrs. C. her medications.

While students and physicians attended to Mrs. C. and other patients, Mrs. G. brought her 88-year-old mother to Baker Elementary for an acupuncture treatment. The student-run clinic project partnered early on with the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine to offer these treatments, Beck said. The 88-year-old woman uses a wheelchair. Even on a warm afternoon, she wore a scarf and a jacket. She underwent heart surgery a few years ago and also suffers from asthma, said her daughter. At Baker Elementary, she receives medications for both conditions.

Almost all of Mrs. G.'s family benefits from the clinic. Her husband receives diabetes medications, which were covered by his work health insurance before he was laid off. Mrs. G. attends a women’s support group. They make jewelry and other crafts, which they hope to sell to raise funds for the clinics.

“We’re so happy they’re here,” she said.

Students and doctors

UCSD Student-run Free Clinic Program (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Two students and an attending physician discuss a patient's case.

And it’s not just patients who said they benefit. Chris Lin, a fourth-year UCSD medical student who volunteered on and off for the past four years, said she learned a lot about diseases and diagnoses. She also learned to take her time with her patients. It’s all about going back to the basics of medical care, she said. “You used to know your patients, you used to know their family, they used to bring you food,” Lin said. She is now thinking about becoming the town doctor in a rural area, she added.

The project helps physicians learn to care for the whole patient, said UCSD alumna Dr. Kristin Brownell, who is one of the attending physicians. In addition to pharmacy and acupuncture, the three sites offer a wide range of specialty clinics, from diabetes care to cardiology. All sites also offer health education, dental clinics and partner with social workers and mental health professionals. Patients’ lab tests are free.

The UCSD School of Medicine and UCSD Medical Center provide funding for the project’s core infrastructure. Funding has also come from larger foundations, including the March of Dimes, Alliance Health Care Foundation and The California Endowment. But the need for money never goes away, Beck said. For example, a single diabetes strip costs 50 cents and patients need several a day.

“Our dream is to be endowed,” she said.

Editor's note: Patients names have been withheld to protect their privacy.

Orignial Article: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/thisweek/2007/04/09_freeclinic.asp

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