Across the United States, nurse volunteers use their skills and time to staff free and charitable medical clinics. Their generosity helps operate 1,200 free clinics, often kept open through donations and private grants that provide a crucial health safety net in communities nationwide.
Charitable Medical Clinic volunteers
Mary Spriggs, RN, Jason Odhner, RN, BSN, and Carrie Cabe, RN, are three examples of nurses who serve some of the millions of Americans are still cannot afford health insurance and lack access to affordable care. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 31 million Americans will remain uninsured by 2024.
At Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, Spriggs is one of 100 volunteer RNs. She serves Tuesday evenings, after finishing her day job in medical quality management.
“We do primary care, refilling meds, getting labs done, seeing patients with pain or UTIs, things an urgent care center would handle,” she said. “We also take care of a lot of patients with diabetes or pre-diabetes, and do a lot of teaching.”
Staffed by about 650 volunteers, the clinic is open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Since opening in 2010, it’s become the medical home for 2,700 patients and they’ve provided more than 20,000 patient visits, according to founder and president Florence Jameson, MD.
While many patients are uninsured, Spriggs said many seniors who fall into the doughnut hole between coverage by Medicare and Medicaid depend on the clinic. The patient demographic encompasses all ethnicities, with 69% of the patients between ages 25 and 61. Spriggs said more families are starting to use the clinic.
“To me, it’s really important as a nurse that people, when down and out and need it the most, be able to access healthcare,” Spriggs said. She sees many positive patient outcomes, such as a one client in his forties, who’d been without healthcare for over a year. “He had hypertension and diabetes; his HgA1c was 12, he had vision problems and peripheral neuropathy.”
Spriggs said education and ongoing care resulted in the patient losing weight, starting to exercise, and gaining blood glucose control. “It was all because the clinic was there for him.”
At Phoenix Allies for Community Health, patients are mainly first generation Hispanic immigrants whose status is a barrier for healthcare services, said Jason Odhner who volunteers as the clinic’s vice president and director of nursing in addition to his job in on a telemetry floor.
The clinic, which opened in 2012 and follows about 385 patients, including many with chronic needs, uses a primary care model. Thursday is a nurse-led clinic focused on case management and diabetes care, with abundant health education, explained Odhner.
“I’m there because I love it,” Odhner said. “The clinic is a place where we come together to help patients, and … patients help each other. It brings us back to why we [nurses] came to this work in the first place.”
He recounts the healing of a female patient whose fractured arm had been splinted in an ED, but received no further care because she didn’t have the money or insurance. PACH volunteers fundraised to provide the surgery to realign the bone and restore function. “She recently came to a fundraiser,” he said, “smiling and working, and has full use of her arm.”
At Safe Harbor Free Clinic in Stanwood, Washington, the more than 200 volunteers see patients from four counties three evenings a week. Executive Director Julie Vess said that while many patients are unemployed, many more work and have purchased insurance, yet cannot afford high out-of-pocket deductibles and copays.
Carrie Cabe, a retired RN, said, “It’s very satisfying to be meeting the needs of others, helping to improve their quality of life. As volunteers, we can take time to listen — we can give much more time to patients.” She enjoys assisting patients, such as one whose multiple skin lesions were cultured for MRSA. He regained his health after bacterial cultures, antibiotics and consistent follow-up visits.
Community leaders applaud the services free clinics provide. Dianne White, now the former mayor of Stanwood, is a longtime champion of Safe Harbor.
“It has been an absolute godsend for the community,” White said. “The clinic draws patients from the whole region and offers quality medical care free of charge to people who have fallen through the cracks — it’s just priceless.”
“Free and charitable clinics will remain an important part of the national healthcare safety net,” said Nicole Lamoureux, executive director, National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. “In the upcoming months and years, doctors, hospitals, navigators, states, clinics and patients will be addressing the needs of the underserved with respect to affordability, portability and accessibility of healthcare for all.”
[accordion title=”Why RNs volunteer at free clinics” load=”hide”]Free clinic volunteering is rewarding and has its own process, according to nurses Mary Spriggs, Jason Odhner and Carrie Cabe, who volunteer at free clinics in the West region of the country.
Some things to be aware of when volunteering at a free clinic:
• Complex medical cases are common as many patients have not received healthcare services for years.
• Patient education is an important need and can be accomplished one-on-one in this setting.
• Mental health needs for individual patients are enormous, yet often difficult to address adequately.
• Patience and flexibility are required when working with an all-volunteer, interprofessional staff.
• Many states offer free malpractice insurance; check with your state nursing board.
• Volunteering can open doors into new areas of nursing practice or job opportunities.[/accordion]