15 Years of Healing San Diego's Underserved
On Saturday, March 31, the UC San Diego Student-Run Free Clinic Project will host its annual fundraiser and awards ceremony. The event will be held at the UC San Diego Price Center Ballroom on the La Jolla campus. Funds raised during this event help provide free medical, dental, pharmacy, acupuncture, legal and social services to San Diego's working poor and homeless. More than 2,000 San Diegans rely on its comprehensive integrative health services every year.
"For more than 15 years, the UC San Diego Student-Run Free Clinic Project has helped people of all ages and backgrounds access high-quality health care, regardless of their ability to pay," said Ellen Beck, MD, clinical professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. "The patients we assist have fallen through the gaps in San Diego's ragged safety net and cannot afford health insurance."
The Student-Run Free Clinic Project is run by 200 UC San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences students under the supervision of 100 licensed professionals including physicians, pharmacists, dentists, lawyers and social workers. The project has four clinical sites throughout the region: Baker Elementary in Southeast San Diego, First Lutheran Church Downtown, Pacific Beach United Methodist Church, and Golden Avenue Elementary in Lemon Grove.
"Since our launch in 1997, we have had the support of incredible community partners, a passionate group of students and the blessing of the UC San Diego School of Medicine," said Beck. "On our first night, in the basement of a church, we saw 10 patients. The number has grown and grown."
Since its inception, more than 35,000 clinic visits have taken place offering transdisciplinary health care services, including specialty care for cardiovascular, ophthalmologic and psychiatric needs. Prescriptions, lab work, and related services are available at no charge. More than 85 percent of the patients have chronic conditions in need of ongoing care.
"It is important to point out that this is underserved medicine, not charity care," said Beck. "For example, our dental services are not poverty dentistry where teeth are pulled, but restorative. We believe that toothlessness leads to joblessness, so we provide solutions like dentures that take care of the medical need and improve a person's employment opportunities."
The Student-Run Free Clinic Project serves as a model of care for other U.S. cities. The program runs an onsite Fellowship in Underserved Health Care, the first in the country. More than 140 faculty and health professionals have completed the national training and started more than 15 other student-run free clinic projects across the country.
"The medical students are taught a humanistic approach to care," said Beck. "This is a mindset that they use every day and we hope will carry into their future medical practices. We teach them how to preserve their passion and sense of respect for all patients. All you have to do is see the students in action to know that they are exceptional in their approach."
Beck said that the greatest challenge for the Student-Run Free Clinic Project is that operational expenses have increased while previously available funding from federal and state sources have decreased. Beck estimates that the clinic provides the community an equivalent of $1.6 million in free medications, and several million in donated services.
"Many of the families who come to us are in crisis or on the verge of homelessness. Some are simply struggling financially and need help with basic health needs. We are here to serve all, but need the support of the community to do so."
Beck is a recipient of the 2010 James Irvine Foundation Leadership award. She was recently honored as a WebMD Magazine 2011 Health Hero.