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Rediscover the Joy of Medicine While Caring for the Uninsured
A nonprofit organization, the NAFC supports free bricks-and-mortar clinics across the United States, but it also has begun sponsoring one- and two-day free mobile clinics to draw attention to the needs of the uninsured. The NAFC doesn't have a political agenda -- it's not Republican, Democratic or Libertarian. Instead, the organization firmly believes that bringing people face-to-face with the problem of the uninsured in these massive clinics will help them think creatively about how to solve our health care problems.
Several months ago, I learned that such a mobile clinic would be held in my state in Kansas City, Mo., so I volunteered. I liked it so much that I signed up for another mobile clinic in Atlanta. Both were astonishing experiences that I wouldn't trade for anything.
A Clear Focus
At my first mobile clinic, I treated a cook who worked full time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As you know, Congress has mandated that all federal employees have health benefits -- but since the USDA outsourced this woman's job, she was working as a contractor with no benefits. She hadn't seen a doctor for years because she couldn't afford to.
Another patient's migraines made her miss days of work each month. A doctor once diagnosed her problem and gave her a free sample of a triptan that worked with the first dose, but she didn't have enough money to fill the brand-name prescription. Since then, she'd been treating her headaches the best she could with OTC remedies.
She just about cried when I handed her a prescription because she was sure that, once again, she couldn't afford the medicine. She was amazed when I showed her how reasonable the cost of the generic would be.
I also saw people with sky-high blood pressure almost dance with joy when they learned that for $20 at the patient assistance program Rx Outreach, they could get a six-month supply of a drug that would likely work as well as the $200-a-month prescription they never could afford to fill.
A few others needed pre-employment physicals so they could apply for a job. I was happy to help them escape their own personal Catch-22.
As a volunteer, I wasn't expected to schedule or provide aftercare for the patients I saw. However, a key focus of the NAFC-sponsored mobile clinics is to be sure that community resources have a large presence. After seeing a provider at the clinic, patients are guided through a wealth of booths to help them tap into aftercare and other resources. Several of these local groups reserved a few acute-care appointment slots for patients who needed follow-up more quickly than a routine process would support.
Although the surroundings weren't cushy, I had my own curtained exam room, supplies and equipment, a medical record to write on, and a nurse to bring a screened patient to me whenever I was ready. I tried to be relatively quick because there was a jam-packed waiting room, but I was encouraged to spend as long as I needed with each patient. What a golden way to practice!
Want to Volunteer?
The NAFC also is planning a mobile clinic on the East Coast in the next few months.
In addition to practicing physicians of all specialties, residents and medical students are welcomed to volunteer. The NAFC also needs mid-level practitioners, nurses and everyone else who can help, clinically or nonclinically.
Visit the NAFC website for more information on the New Orleans clinic and to volunteer. Information on the East Coast clinic will be posted on the site as soon as plans are complete.
My Next Steps -- and Yours
My retirement also has given me time to reach out to organizations such as the AAFP, looking for ways to encourage more practicing physicians (and residents and medical students) to volunteer at these mobile clinics. That's my passion these days -- that, and playing the ukulele.
I hope this guest opinion will inspire you to volunteer at an upcoming clinic for a few hours or a few days. Just sign up, show up and remember the experience for the rest of your life. (See "Want to Volunteer?" sidebar for more on volunteering.)
The reasons you wanted to become a doctor might come flooding back as you take care of these incredibly thankful patients. Their gratitude will be the finest form of reimbursement you'll ever know.