A distinct lack of white lab coats is just one departure from medical tradition at the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic. It’s also the one that made former patient Yawo Mottey, a refugee from Gabon, nervous about visiting the clinic for the first time in 2004.
“It was in a basement, it didn’t really look to me like a real clinic,” he said, adding he was surprised his physicians were dressed in street clothes.
But Mottey said the clinic’s free health care may have saved his life in his third week in America, and when the rest of his family immigrated in 2006, he sent them there to be checked out.
About 250 University of Minnesota student volunteers from varying health care disciplines provide free primary care to the uninsured and underserved in the Phillips neighborhood two nights a week.
The clinic is technically only open for three hours each night, said co-chair and second-year medical student Keri Robideaux. Patients often start arriving up to an hour before the clinic opens, she said, and the students do their best to see every patient before the doors close at 9 p.m.
They usually see about 12 to 20 patients each night.
Most of the students are in the first and second years of their programs, which include medicine, nursing, pharmacy and others, so they practice under the supervision of licensed professionals called preceptors.
The clinic provides basic care, such as vaccines and diagnosis of colds and the flu, said co-chair and second-year medical student Nancy Cole .
“The goal is not to be someone’s primary care (physician) but more of a safety net,” said Robideaux.
On Monday, students were being trained into a number of roles, and the short hallway which houses the clinic buzzed from their excitement.
In addition to volunteering at the clinic as part of a care team or patient advocate, the students accepted into the clinic’s program do three outreach events each semester with another community organization in the Phillips area, Cole said.
The students try to have a positive presence in the neighborhood, she said, so the residents know they have a vested interest in the area.
In addition to their respective health science classes, the students also receive training on the clinic’s equipment, all of which is either donated or purchased used, and cultural competency training.
About half of the clinic’s clientele speak primarily Spanish, so three or four volunteers each night act as interpreters.
Even though her Spanish wasn’t perfect when she started, Nadia Akhtar , a first-year public health student, said she has had a good experience as a clinic interpreter.
The patients are very forgiving, she said, and are willing to help the interpreters.
“I was the most nervous about not knowing enough Spanish,” Akhtar said, “but you get creative.”
Working at the clinic is a constant reminder of the need in a local community, she said.
After a few hours of working with a patient and trying to help him fill out forms, Akhtar said he revealed to her that he was illiterate.
“We take for granted that everybody has that skill,” she said.
About 40 students staff the clinic on any given night and work in small teams, helping patients through the clinic process.
A patient advocate stays with the patient the entire time, helping him or her to fill out paperwork, and doing an initial interview to identify which services the person could benefit from.
Mottey, the former patient, said he felt the students and the preceptors all asked questions in a kind and respectful manner.
“I felt they were there to help me, they understood me,” he said. “Even though I had no money, they didn’t care.”
Some of the students, like Cole and Robideaux, plan to pursue careers in urban primary care as result of their work in the clinic.
Because of the level of need for free health care in the area, Cole and Robideaux said they haven’t received any challenges from community members who are skeptical of being treated by students.
Ten students, including one from each AHC program, sit on a governing board, which is advised by Dr. Brian Sick , a faculty member in the medical school.
“They have nowhere else to turn,” Sick said of the clinic’s patients. “The care we provide is comprehensive, and they’re very appreciative of that.”
For most of the patients, the care at PNC is arguably of higher quality, he said, because the patient is seen by four or five students and a licensed preceptor.
“That doesn’t even happen in the real world,” Sick said, “and it’s all for free, so that’s a bonus.”
Under Cole and Robideaux’s direction, the PNC has expanded its coverage this year to include mental health and nutrition services, as well as adding a second night of operation on Thursdays.
The next step, Sick said, is to assess how the clinic is meeting the needs of the community and ensure the services and care they provide is meeting the needs appropriately.
What the clinic may lack in physical resources or funds (they operate on a shoe-string budget of $35,000 per year, plus some grants) they make up for with the sheer energy of the students.
Clinic organizers are especially excited about almost $22,000 they recently received from the Healthier Minnesota Community Clinic Fund. The money will go toward new lab machines, computers, and a copy machine (among other items), Sick said.
Mottey no longer frequents the PNC because his job offers health benefits, but continues to recommend it to friends and his students at the Lighthouse Academy of Nations.
Although the physicians are students, they give “all their passions,” he said. “You can read from their eyes that they’re there for you.”
— Emma L. Carew is a senior staff reporter.