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USF medical students are providing free health care to people without housing

Male medical student wraps a blood pressure cuff around an older woman's arm's arm. He leans over a table where she's sitting.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Kirtan Patel takes Annette Carter's vital signs. He is a second year medical student at the University of South Florida, while she is temporarily living in a tent at Tampa Hope. She says she is grateful to have the access to health care.

Residents at a tent shelter get health care they often struggle to access elsewhere. Students learn to adapt treatment when the ideal solution isn't feasible.

Inside an activities building in a tent community known as Tampa Hope, a computer center is doubling as a doctors’ office waiting room. Residents are filling out paperwork and talking with volunteers in green University of South Florida t-shirts.

For the past several months, medical students with the group Tampa Bay Street Medicine have been running a free clinic at the temporary housing program, offering primary care services to people living in tents. They’re trying to relieve some of the challenges that people who are experiencing homelessness face in accessing health care.

ALSO READ: Tampa Hope offers shelter and social services to people facing homelessness

Volunteers come every other Saturday. Students do most of the legwork up front, from patient intake to physical exams, while doctors from the region help finalize treatment plans and write prescriptions.

Man approaches a table and talks to a young woman in a mask who is a medical student who helps run a health clinic. People sit at tables around the room checking in patients.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
USF's Tampa Bay Street Medicine group has been coming to Tampa Hope to run a free health clinic since April.

Some residents need help with things like monitoring high blood pressure or diabetes. Annette Carter, 58, explained to second-year medical student Kirtan Patel that she has sciatica, arthritis and a torn meniscus in one of her knees.

“And my leg went out on me, both of them, the other day so I wanna check and make sure nothing crazy’s going on,” Carter said, before Patel started checking her vital signs.

Carter moved into a tent at Tampa Hope after she was evicted from her home. Her boyfriend had been supporting her but he died late last year.

Carter said she wants to find a job and said improving her mobility would help. Prior to coming to this clinic, she said she hadn’t seen a primary care doctor in about 15 years. Like many people without stable housing or health insurance, Carter relied on hospital emergency rooms for care.

She said she's grateful to have more consistent access to support.

"It's a great help it really is, it's a great help to me and some of the other people that are here,” said Carter.

Woman sits on a medical exam table and holds her knee, showing a medical student sitting across from her where her pain is.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Annette Carter showed USF med student Kirtan Patel where some of the pain in her knee was. She wants to improve her mobility so she's in better shape to get a job and move around.
Tampa Hope offers shelter and social services to people facing homelessness
Rows of green camping tents sitting on wooden platforms.

Many of the 100 people living at Tampa Hope at any given time have multiple chronic health conditions, according to program director Cynthia Jones-Northington with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which runs the tent community.

The clinic is just one way the program looks to address different factors that contribute to homelessness. There's also mental health counseling, job training, GED classes and other social services on site.

“So our job is to give them [residents] the life-saving resources they need in order to start to stabilize in this environment and then work to the point of transitioning back into the community successfully and sustainably,” said Jones-Northington.

Before coming to Tampa Hope, volunteers with Tampa Bay Street Medicine spent years running a similar clinic for people without housing from a sidewalk in the city’s downtown. Clinic director Lila Gutstein said having a designated space in a program that's offering these other services helps the team provide better care.

"Like the fact that we can now refer people to employment opportunities and they have a place to stay right here where we're giving the clinic, it addresses multiple barriers to homelessness and healthcare that we weren't able to do on the sidewalk,” she said.

Female medical students sit and stand around a table filling out forms and working on laptops.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Clinic directors Lila Gutstein (back center) and Apoorva Ravichandran (right) said they like working at Tampa Hope because the program addresses different social determinants of health.

But they can only do so much. As students examined Annette Carter behind a curtain she gasped in pain as they tested the range of motion in her legs.

“What's hurting?” they asked her. She explained she felt shooting pains all the way down each leg and couldn’t move them much. Patel and his colleagues felt “crunchiness” in each knee, signs that the cartilage was significantly worn down.

Social workers at Tampa Hope help some residents get on the Hillsborough County Health Care Plan, an insurance program for people with low incomes who don’t qualify for Medicaid or other government coverage. But Carter hadn’t finished applying so for now could only get what the team offered her for free.

As they discussed treatment options with the physician, Kirtan Patel sighed. This was a tough situation.

"Because the thing she really needs is probably like a knee replacement, and that's probably not going to happen for her. So really it’s just more symptomatic treatment now,” he said.

They prescribed Carter medicine to reduce inflammation and muscle spasms. They wrapped her knees for support and taught her how to change the bandages while they looked into ordering her a cane or walker.

Group of medical students stand around a patient in an exam room
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
USF medical students helped Annette Carter get some medication to help with her leg pain and suggested she get a cane or walker for support. It may not solve all of her problems, but it still helps.

Apoorva Ravichandran, who also directs the clinic, said situations like this teach students a harsh reality: not all can afford treatment in America’s healthcare system, so physicians need to adapt.

"Like in school it's very easy to say, 'Ok we're going to prescribe this perfect $10,000 medication.’ But when you're outside in the real world and you see, OK well we need a $10 solution. How are they going to go get that?” said Ravichandran.

That solution may not always be a cure, but for patients like Carter, it’s access to care that had been out of reach for so long.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.