Students provide health care for the homeless

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When Carolyn Bramante began working with the homeless, she could provide a hot meal but couldn’t treat a bad cut on the road to infection.

“I thought, man, even simple health care … it could really go a long way,” Bramante said.

So the second-year medical student founded the Inter-professional Street Outreach Project (ISTOP), which has about 40 active members including University of Minnesota students in nursing, public health, pharmacy, physical therapy and medicine.

Since February, about every other week students and a preceptor – a medical official from the University or general medical community – will load duffel bags with supplies and travel to a women’s shelter or church. They spend the first 20 minutes talking with people and setting up in a corner.

For the next hour they check temperatures and pulses, treat basic cuts and fungal infections, pass out wound care kits and medicine like cough drops.

Bramante said she has seen many people who wanted to go to the emergency room and didn’t need to. By providing basic care or directing people to a free clinic, the organization averts expensive costs to the healthcare system, Bramante said.

On Oct. 7 ISTOP began providing care in the basement of Holy Rosary church, where Loaves and Fishes offers free dinners.

Laura Wallace, outreach coordinator at Holy Rosary, said the ISTOP is unique, and serves “a transient population who might not access care otherwise.”

The students provide a constant presence for a population who may have had negative experiences with health care in the past, Jake Feigal, a second-year medical student and ISTOP co-chair said.

On her last visit to a homeless shelter, ISTOP volunteer and nursing and psychology student Anna Grossbach showed kids how to sneeze into their elbow and wash their hands. “It’s the simple things that can make a big difference,” she said.

“What’s most enjoyable is seeing what’s out there, it’s not what you read about in books,” Grossbach said.

The first couple years of medical school students spend a lot of time thinking about themselves, Bramante said. “It’s nice for students to be thinking about serving others,” she said.

Grossbach said having students from across different medical professions is important because patients fall through the cracks when the disciplines can’t communicate with each other.

Physical therapy students help at Women of Nations shelter once a month. They discuss exercise, pain management, and screen for diabetes, second-year physical therapy student John Egge said.

The students listen to the women and children’s needs but make a point to not judge them, April Witschen, assistant program director at Women of Nations, said.

“Someone can sense when they’re being judged, [they] put up an extra wall,” Feigal said.

Bramante said the homeless have often been mistreated by the health care system, but with ISTOP she has had 15 people thank her for being there.

Bramante wants to expand the project and take it to the streets. There is a population of the homeless who won’t go to service agencies, ISTOP faculty advisor and University professor Dr. John Song said.

The program is working on the logistics of visiting encampments, but liability problems and safety issues must be handled first, Song said.

Another limiting factor is the number of licensed physician volunteers, Song said. Due to busy schedules, ISTOP has only about five active preceptors, but needs about 20.