At more than 30 percent, Portland’s rate of chronic homelessness is twice the national average. This population lacks adequate shelter for more than a year, or experiences houselessness at least four times a year over three years, and suffers from serious physical or mental conditions.
Although many of these individuals qualify for and have enrolled in state-funded health programs, even the most basic health care needs may still go unmet due to inability to access clinics, lack of transportation to scheduled appointments and the ability to navigate health care systems.
“When I get sick, I usually can't get a doctor's appointment, or miss the appointment because I don’t have transportation. So, I'll just wait until I’m sick enough to go to the emergency room,” said Rocket, 70, a Medicare enrollee and resident at Transition Project’s Clark Center Annex, a short-term transitional shelter for homeless men. “I know this isn’t the best way to get medical attention, but sometimes it’s the only way.”
Students from OHSU, Oregon State University and Portland State University, in collaboration with Transition Projects, faculty advisers and community experts, are determined to help remove these barriers to care. On October 7, they will conduct their first day of appointments at the Bridges Collaborative Care Clinic, a free, student-led health clinic operated by medical, nursing, dentistry, public health and pharmacy students.
“Bridges focuses on transitional care. We will serve as the first point of health care for individuals with limited access to existing services,” said Zoe Teton, clinic co-chair and third-year student in the OHSU School of Medicine. “Our goal is to help meet the needs of this population, regardless of insurance status, and assist them in developing a long-term primary care plan that includes access to community health care providers.”
Located at the Clark Center Annex in inner Portland, Bridges offers services such as health screenings, social services and health education courses two Saturdays a month under the supervision of licensed health care practitioners. While clientele will be limited to Clark Center residents to start, student leaders hope to increase both the clinic size and frequency to allow more participants access to services. A Bridges clinic focused on basic dental care is expected to open at Transitions Projects’ Bud Clark Commons in Portland’s Pearl District sometime next year.
“Whether it's conducting a vision test, teaching participants to navigate the health care system, or simply arranging for transportation to and from a doctor visit, it’s a great feeling to know that our efforts will help to bridge the primary care gaps for this vulnerable population,” Teton said.
Rocket agrees: “It is a relief to know that I’ll have this type of care so readily available, and so close to my current home.”
While student-run free clinics have had a long history of helping to meet the needs of underserved populations in the community, they also serve a second, and equally important, purpose: they enrich students’ professional education.
“We don’t receive a paycheck or school credit for our work with Bridges,” explained Tom Foley, a third-year community health Ph.D. student at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health and Bridges’ co-lead for training and education. “Instead, we receive real-world, hands-on experience across all aspects of health care, from clinical to business. We engage with patients who need our help and collaborate with peers working in other health care disciplines. We learn experientially beyond our classroom walls. It's invaluable.”