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Medical students plan free clinic for the homeless

The USC Free Clinic Project will be located in a building on North Madison Avenue, which will be remodeled to house a homeless access center run by People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). The center also will feature a shelter.

If USC students have their way, what started out small–;a proposed volunteer day at a homeless shelter–;will actually become a medical lifeline for people without homes.

Second-year medical student Catherine Rongey first approached People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a Los Angeles-based organization, at the end of 1998 to explore setting up a student volunteer day with the group.

But the group’s staff saw a greater need–;setting up a clinic for homeless people in their new Westlake-area access center, which will open in 2001. That potential to make a difference in the community prompted Rongey and fellow second-year medical student Jo Persoon-Gundy to propose the USC Free Medical Clinic Project, with the help of supportive faculty members.

The clinic will serve a population of extraordinary need, whose access to health care is minimal and who have almost no continuity of care, said Persoon-Gundy, who plans to pursue her interests in community health care through emergency medicine. ³They are seen in emergency rooms, at various mobile clinics and scattered free clinics, and almost never see doctors who have access to any previous records.”

As many as 600,000 people in the U.S. are homeless, Rongey said. Homeless adults have more injuries and illnesses than the general population, and 28 to 53 percent of them lack a regular source of care. To make matters worse, 26 percent of them suffer from chronic mental illness and 71 percent suffer from chronic substance dependence, according to a 1997 study of homeless Los Angeles residents. Tuberculosis and HIV infection are more prevalent, as well.

Students and their physician advisor, Kathryn Challoner, associate professor of clinical emergency medicine, are working on obtaining nonprofit status for the clinic project and securing an official relationship with the university.

³We look forward to its imminent opening,” Challoner said.

Rongey said the project in development typifies service learning: it provides an insight into the homeless population, encourages continued volunteer medical service to the underserved, promotes an understanding of clinic management and emphasizes the importance of working with community organizations to best serve patients.

The project will provide a chance for medical students to see patients, practice taking histories, administer basic physical exams and health education and give screenings and counseling–;all under the close supervision of a faculty physician.

We hope that involved medical students would find joy, and perhaps purpose, in serving the underserved, said Rongey, who hopes to enter either emergency medicine or pediatrics. By keeping this project student-run, we are also teaching our medical students that we have the capability to bring about positive change in our communities.

The access center will have a shelter within it, so the clinic will have an in-house base of patients, as well as patients walking in off the street. The students plan for the clinic to refer patients who need specialized medical care to LAC+USC Medical Center for further treatment and hope to exchange records of shared patients with the medical center and other appropriate health centers to ensure patients get good follow-up care. PATH’s access center will provide transitional housing, job placement services and life skills education.

Students also are looking forward to partnering with other organizations, including the USC School of Dentistry, to provide additional services such as dental care, HIV testing and women’s exams.

The students said supportive faculty members include Ron Ben-Ari, associate chair of educational affairs for the Department of Medicine; Jeannie Brewer, clinical instructor in family medicine; Madeline Bruning, nurse educator in pediatrics; Donna Elliot, associate professor of clinical pediatrics and assistant dean of curriculum & student affairs, clinical education; Peter Katsufrakis, associate dean of student affairs at the Keck School; Ricardo Hahn, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine; William Mallon, associate professor and director of the residency program of emergency medicine; and Madeleine R. Stoner, professor of social work.

PATH and the Department of Family Medicine will sponsor the group, Persoon-Gundy said. We’ve begun the process of applying for grants, and have received our first check, she said. It’s only for a small amount, but it’s a beginning, and hopefully a sign of the willingness of the community to fund a project like this one.

Nonprofit groups just starting out find it difficult to get grants, Rongey said, so the group is looking for private donations as well.

Medical students plan free clinic for the homeless

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