A clinic for those most in need
Date: March 5, 2012
In her first week as a medical student at Johns Hopkins, Claire Sampankanpanich boarded a bus with other bright-eyed future physicians to tour some of Baltimore’s grittiest neighborhoods. The blocks of vacant, decaying homes bore little resemblance to the sheltered suburbs of San Diego where Sampankanpanich was raised.
Witnessing poverty and homelessness firsthand deepened her desire to work in a disadvantaged community, which Sampankanpanich says drew her to Hopkins’ program over others across the country. Inspired, she sought out volunteer opportunities, discovering a passionate group of similarly concerned students who had opened a free health resource center blocks from campus just months earlier. Today, she’s one of many students leading the now two-year-old Charm City Clinic in its mission to reduce health disparities among low-income Baltimore residents.
Whether offering health screenings, helping clients apply for insurance coverage, or connecting them with programs that offer free or reduced-cost prescriptions and doctor’s visits, the student-run operation in Baltimore’s Middle East community helps locals facing socioeconomic challenges overcome barriers to health care access.
“It’s really easy to assume that access to health care is the same thing as the availability of resources,” says Mike Rogers, a founding member and community outreach director. While Baltimore has an abundance of health resources, they can be fragmented and difficult to access for some, says Rogers, who spent more time in the Middle East neighborhood than the classroom as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins.
Lengthy and confusing paperwork needed to apply for state and federal programs that subsidize or fully cover the cost of health insurance, prescriptions and medical care is a huge barrier for clients, many of whom lack adequate literacy skills. The benefits of tapping into such programs are untold. “Ninety percent of the medications that people really need to change the likelihood that they’ll die of a heart attack or stroke are available for about $10 for a three-month supply,” says Ramy El-Diwany, a third-year Hopkins M.D./Ph.D. student who’s been a part of Charm City Clinic since its inception.
Founding members say their model differs from other student-run, free health centers across the country. Instead of providing short-term primary care services performed by medical students seeking an opportunity to hone their clinical skills, Charm City Clinic volunteers act as a conduit to community resources and strive for long-term relationships with clients. Visits, whether by appointment or during walk-in hours, typically take at least 30 to 45 minutes, and nearly half are made by established clients. Lengthy visits help to build trust and allow students to practice interviewing and history-taking skills with guidance from Hopkins physicians who oversee their work.
From its formative stages, Charm City Clinic was created with direct input from neighborhood residents and leaders, among others, who said the community was in need of a health resource center. One of these partners was the nonprofit Men & Families Center. The organization shared invaluable information from its past experience in providing community health services to help get the clinic started, and it has been critical to the students’ understanding of their neighbors’ needs.
Volunteers go to great lengths to ensure their clients’ health needs are being met, calling between visits, scheduling follow-up appointments in the evening or even at the client’s home, if needed. Favorite stories of “extreme follow-up” include standing in line with a client at 5:30 a.m. at Healthcare for the Homeless and, on another occasion, sitting in the waiting room at the Department of Social Services office for half a day. “There has to be a balance between doing it with someone versus doing it for them,” El-Diwany says.
Word of mouth, and grassroots efforts such as going door to door, training community members as outreach workers and using brightly colored hand-painted sidewalk signs to advertise their services have helped the clinic’s volume to double over the past year. In all, volunteers have served more than 500 clients since their doors opened in March 2010.
Now Charm City Clinic leaders are working to build capacity to address health needs for the increasing number of community residents turning to them. To do so, they’re seeking additional help from students and physicians interested in volunteering during the clinic’s weekly walk-in hours on Saturdays. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, call 443-478-3015 or visit charmcityclinic.org.