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Student-run clinic gives homeless individuals access to free health care

The Student Run Homeless Clinic provides free medical services to homeless individuals in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Viviana Huang Chen)

By Jorge Valero

April 22, 2016 12:28 a.m.

Alexander Sones, a second-year medical student, treated his first patient at a Santa Monica homeless shelter after spending the morning asking the man questions about his throat and abdomen pain to diagnose his condition.

The Student Run Homeless Clinic, a mobile clinic staffed by UCLA medical students, provides free medical services to homeless individuals in Los Angeles about 50 times a year, said Viviana Huang Chen, administrative chief at the clinic.

Clinic volunteers visit homeless shelters throughout the Los Angeles area and provide low-cost, over-the-counter medicine, physical exams and foot care, among other services, Chen said. Medical students perform physical exams and take patient histories before residents or physicians examine the patients themselves.

The clinic is one of 10 finalists in the “Helping U Help Your Community” competition hosted by UCLA Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine. Four winners will receive $20,000 to facilitate partnerships between UCLA and the community to improve public health, said Visith Uy, project director at the medical school and UCLA Health Strategic Plan.

Chen said the clinic has relied on small donations since it began in 1990 and volunteers held small fundraisers like bake sales every few years to supplement funding. She added additional funding would allow the clinic to expand their services to more shelters across Los Angeles and supply the clinic with more medication and equipment.

Sones said his first experience with the clinic helped him develop the skills he needed to treat patients and exposed him to the chronic homeless situation in Los Angeles.

“It’s an unforgettable and eye-opening experience,” Sones said. “Most patients we see are either unable or unwilling to get treatment at hospitals, and our clinic is the only time they receive care.”

Chen said the clinic partners year-round with shelters like the Samoshel homeless shelter and the Pathways to Home Emergency Shelter.

Dr. Mary Marfisee, who helps run the clinic, said homeless individuals don’t have the transportation needed to get to a hospital and are not eligible for health insurance because they don’t have an address or form of identification. Funds from the competition could help the clinic provide patients with basic documents like identification, she added.

Marfisee said the clinic also hopes to register patients for health insurance, buy more medication, build an electronic database of patients’ health records and purchase vaccines for common respiratory infections.

Tajah Tubbs, a first-year medical student, said she remembers one patient who had a severe rotator cuff tear.

“He requested an arm sling, but we were unable to give him one because we usually cannot afford to carry slings among our supplies,” Tubbs said. “As a clinic, we should be able to provide things like braces and slings for patients with musculoskeletal problems.”

Despite limited access to resources, students who work at the clinic said the experience helped them grow as medical students.

Tubbs said she felt nervous about making mistakes with patients when she started volunteering last year, but her desire to help the underprivileged overpowered her apprehension.

“I was shy and afraid of failing when I first started in the clinic,” Tubbs said. “My first patient had been in an altercation. Knowing I was a student, he was very friendly and allowed me to perform every physical test twice so I could learn how to do it.”

Chen said seeing patients before their symptoms worsen lowers the number of homeless individuals who need to receive emergency attention.

Still, many face medical emergencies such as stroke that require urgent care, Marfisee said.

“In those cases, we call 911, and the patient is sent to the nearest emergency department available,” she said. “The cost is usually written off as charity.”

Sones said simply having a conversation with homeless patients and listening to their stories makes a meaningful difference.

“It’s amazing how much you can accomplish during a 20-minute conversation with a patient, even when you don’t have hospital beds or the latest medical equipment,” he said.

Email Valero at [email protected] or tweet him @jvalerodailyb.

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Jorge Valero | News contributor
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