Student-run free clinics unite under one nonprofit

Cuts in funding have spurred two free health clinics run by medical school students to join forces under a new parent nonprofit organization, Cardinal Free Clinics.

While daily operations are unlikely to change, the merger will allow the clinics to streamline operations and provide care more efficiently to their patients, said Chris Adams, a medical student and a clinic staffing coordinator.

"It's really a business strategy," said Lars Osterberg, MD, clinical assistant professor and one of the clinics' medical directors.

The two clinics, formerly known as the Arbor Free Clinic in Menlo Park and the Pacific Free Clinic in San Jose, are run by students and overseen by members of the medical school faculty. They provide free services to people with insufficient insurance. Many of the patients are immigrants who require translation services in Vietnamese, Spanish and other languages.

Although the two clinics had interacted in the past, they functioned autonomously. In the last few years, however, the clinics had difficulties obtaining funding, Osterberg said. Arbor Free Clinic scaled back services such as reducing the number of eyeglass vouchers offered to optometry patients.

Seeing the need to secure regular funding, students composed a business plan and identified services and functions the clinics could improve. Joint operation will help the clinics enhance fund-raising as well as conserve their resources by sharing equipment and personnel, Osterberg said.

The merger will also facilitate patient referrals, Adams said. Pacific Free Clinic focuses on chronic illness such as diabetes and hypertension, while the Arbor Free Clinic deals more with acute care cases. Through collaboration, the clinics can now send patients to each other for tests and services.

If the new organization is successful, the clinics will be able to expand their hours and offer new services. Currently, the clinics are each open one weekend day a week. They see about 2,000 patients annually, 90 percent of whom are uninsured. Sometimes the clinics cannot accommodate all the people seeking help because they're already at capacity for the day, Osterberg said. Students hope to be able to open the clinics an additional day, as well as add dentistry and psychiatric services.

The clinics depend on volunteers. Most of the staff are students who gain hands-on experience managing the clinic. Physicians in the community who wish to participate can now receive some continuing education credits for their efforts. Furthermore, the application process has been streamlined for those volunteers who wish to become adjunct clinical faculty members of the medical school.

Anne Pinckard is a science-writing intern in the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs.