By Karen Schmidt, RN
Cindy Tofthagen, PhD, ARNP, AOCNP, FAANP, thinks of it as the missing link. The monthly free clinic she launched for people in the Tampa area with peripheral neuropathy provides sought-after — and often absent — education and resources most neuropathy sufferers need.
“Patients in the peripheral neuropathy support group I lead on the University of Southern Florida campus ask for information on how to manage their symptoms at home, and seek other information they don’t get in their usual healthcare provider visits. It’s difficult to address their concerns” during support group sessions, said Tofthagen, an assistant professor at USF’s College Of Nursing.
Her answer: a free clinic staffed by volunteer multidisciplinary providers. Since opening the clinic in January 2013, Tofthagen and the volunteer team have established a monthly schedule that accommodates eight patients each time the clinic is open. To date, they’ve served 62 people; Tofthagen anticipates accommodating 80 individuals in 2015.
During the monthly clinic, each patient meets with providers one on one, including, a nurse practitioner such as Tofthagen, an occupational therapist, physical therapist, usually a massage therapist and a mental health counselor. Tofthagen said she often discusses pain control options and managing symptoms, offering ideas patients can take back to their own healthcare providers.
The clinic concept germinated about a year before it opened.
“I didn’t know how to go about starting it, but I heard what patients were telling me and I wanted to help them,” Tofthagen said. A conversation led to the idea of borrowing a doctor’s office — it would be set up for patient visits, and on weekends might be available.
“That was the catalyst that made it happen,” Tofthagen said. Lining up volunteer professionals and developing the educational content for patients came naturally out of her involvement with the patient support group and her faculty work, she added.
Initially the clinic was independent and unfunded. Over time, she said she saw the logic of incorporating it with the college of nursing, and the college dean agreed. With the USF affiliation, grant funding has become possible.
Tofthagen would like to develop additional clinics to reach patients with other chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, osteoarthritis and hypertension.
“These patients also would benefit from education and support, which allow them to take control of managing their symptoms at home,” Tofthagen said. “I want [these clinics] to serve as resources for the whole Tampa Bay area, providing services at no charge,” supplying the missing link in healthcare systems that span all types of chronic illnesses, she said.
Karen Schmidt, RN, is a freelance writer.
Sidebar: Multidisciplinary volunteers and nursing students power free clinic
A monthly free clinic’s foundation at the University of South Florida campus is constructed from a diversity of professionals and students, furnishing a range of support and care for peripheral neuropathy sufferers. In addition to the physical, occupational and massage therapists and mental health counselor already on board, the clinic’s founder Cindy Tofthagen, PhD, ARNP, AOCNP, FAANP, is scouting for a social worker to handle coordination of care. She welcomes the occasional contributions of a podiatrist and has been seeking a neurologist.
USF undergraduate nursing students contribute by checking in patients, scheduling and contacting patients between visits, connecting them with support groups and keeping patients moving through the volunteer stations at each clinic.
“It wasn’t hard to find volunteers,” said Tofthagen, an assistant professor at USF’s College of Nursing in Tampa. “I’ve been very selective in choosing healthcare professionals who have the expertise to meet patients’ needs, and have a passion for patients.” She said no one has turned her down when asked to volunteer.
Maintaining a manageable clinic schedule — once a month — is by design, Tofthagen added. “I don’t want to burn out volunteers.”
— Karen Schmidt, RN
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