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Monday, Nov 20, 2017
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Aspiring Doctors Offer Free Help

TAMPA - Sylvia Martinez had been told before she had high blood pressure. But the 47-year-old had never taken medicine for it until about three weeks ago, when aspiring doctors and their supervising physicians convinced her she needed it. Martinez, who does not have medical insurance, was able to get the examination, diagnosis and medication for free, thanks to a new clinic in the University Area run by University of South Florida medical students. The BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic had its grand opening Tuesday night, when Martinez was one of four patients seen. It was a followup appointment to her initial visit, which had taken place during a monthlong soft opening. About 20 patients were treated during the lead-up.
The BRIDGE, an acronym derived from Building Relationships and Initiatives Dedicated to Gaining Equality, operates Tuesday evenings at the University Area Community Health Center, a county-run facility on North 22nd Street in the low-income community west of the university. Martinez, who moved to Tampa a year ago from New York, said Tuesday night that she was feeling better, but the medical team recommended doubling the medication to further lower her blood pressure. "I came here and they prescribed it. I never had anyone help me like this before," Martinez said. Martinez learned of the new clinic at a health fair. Some who attend such fairs have no insurance, money or knowledge of how to get followup care, said Ariel Lufkin, 25, a second-year medical student and the clinic's staff coordinator. "The best we could do was send them home with a brochure on high blood pressure," Lufkin said. "We had to say: 'I'm sorry. Change your diet. Exercise.' Now, if they qualify, we can treat them here." To qualify, patients' income must be below 200 percent of the poverty level. They also cannot have medical insurance or receive other assistance such as Medicaid. They do not have to be citizens or legal immigrants. The clinic was the brainchild of four fourth-year medical student friends: Samuel Crane, 32; Waldo Guerrero, 25; Omar Hammad, 25; and Shelby Kent, 34. They began working on the idea in fall 2006. The clinic comes after another group of medical students secured a grant in 2004 to stage health education programs, screenings, flu shots and health fairs. That program is now part of BRIDGE. The founding directors read documents from other student-run centers and attended a conference regarding such clinics, which are operated by students from about 50 U.S. medical schools. They reached out to a core group of about 30 student volunteers, also representing the university's programs for social services and physical therapy. They expect to include nursing and public health soon. The USF College of Medicine provided $10,000, the American Medical Association gave $1,000, and Quest Diagnostics committed to process laboratory work. The county health center's director lets the students use the health center's supplies. The students are seeking other grants and plan fundraisers. Kent said, "The hardest thing was the time commitment - taking time away from school." Waldo said the clinic team usually finds that patients have high blood pressure, high blood sugar and/or high cholesterol. Most patients need medication, help with a proper diet and followup. If they require a consultation with a specialist, USF physicians have agreed to see them at no charge. "We see this as preventive. If we can control their problems, they won't have a heart attack" from the conditions, Waldo said. Appointments are required, and a visit may take an hour or more. The patient is seen by a social worker and two medical students, one a first- or second-year student who is paired with a third- or fourth year student in the "real world learning" program. The student team reports to attending physicians who question the students about the condition and the students' recommended treatment. A physician then sees the patient with the student team and makes the final decision. Patients are referred to the $4 prescription plan at Wal-Mart and given gift cards to cover the medication. Crane said the College of Medicine's curriculum exposed students to underserved populations in Dover and other areas with large migrant populations. However, in recent years, the University Area has become heavily populated with Hispanic immigrants, some of whom are in the country illegally. "We have an underserved area next door, so why not be able to volunteer right here?" said Crane, who said the clinic directors hope to serve about 400 patients the first year. Doug Holt, director of the Hillsborough County Health Department, said the new clinic is "a huge help. It's not about the number of people they see; it demonstrates the commitment to patients. They are setting an example." Hammad said the best thing for him about the clinic is "the gratitude from the patients. They have been turned away from so many places. Whether we are students, whether we are doctors, they are just glad to talk to someone." WHAT: A clinic run by University of South Florida medical students WHEN: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays WHERE: University Area Community Health Center, 13601 N. 22nd St. NEEDS: Tax-deductible cash donations for operating the clinic, medical supplies and equipment APPOINTMENTS REQUIRED: Call (813) 307-8037. INFORMATION: Visit www.bridge healthcareclinic.org or e-mail [email protected]

Correspondent Lenora Lake can be reached at (813) 865-4851 or [email protected]

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