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UCSD’s Student-Run Clinic Celebrates 10 Years of Serving Uninsured


In 1997, a professor and a few medical students at UCSD came up with the idea of starting a free medical clinic in Pacific Beach. This year, the student-run free clinic celebrates its tenth anniversary. Supporters say the clinic provides a ray of hope for people our health care system leaves behind. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has more.

It's a Monday night at the 1st Lutheran Church in San Diego.

John Adams: Welcome everyone to downtown. Thank you for being here. Just a few notes to keep in mind as you're seeing patients. First, the patients are our priority here, so we want to be careful to be respectful for their time, be respectful of their privacy. So be very aware of your surroundings as you're seeing your patient.

1st year med student John Adams addresses a roomful of other aspiring doctors.

Twenty-two-year-old Kat Sonnleitner has been volunteering at the clinic since last September. She's completing her 1st year in medical school.

Sonnleitner: I haven't learned that much, but I've learned enough that I feel like I can really help the patients. And also, even if I don't know everything that there is to know about all these conditions and all these medications, I can still sit down with a person and ask them how they're doing, and give them an outlet, somebody that they can talk to and connect with. 

About a quarter of the clinic's patients are homeless. The rest are the working poor, who make too much to qualify for public programs, but not enough to afford private insurance.

Dr. Ellen Beck helped start the free clinic ten years ago. She says clinic staff treats everyone with dignity, regardless of a patient's status.

Beck: If you show respect to people, and you treat them with respect, then you've already made a difference. They might be homeless, they might be poor, they might not have resources, but they know if they come here, they'll be treated with kindness, they'll be treated with respect, as they deserve to be treated, as we all do.

At the clinic, medical students are overseen by a host of doctors who also volunteer their time. Medications are either donated, or purchased at a discount. The same with lab work.

The clinic offers a wide array of services. Patients get medical care including help managing chronic conditions like diabetes. They can see a dentist, or talk with a mental health professional. And that's not all.

Oriental Medicine practitioner and patient: Is this hurting you? Yeah,  my feet…they're tender. Okay, breathe down to your toes right now, breathe to my hands.

Patients can get alternative therapies including acupuncture.

Practitioner and patient: Are the needles feeling right now?

These therapies are provided by students and instructors from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Pacific College student Thomas Kwo says he enjoys interacting with his counterparts at UCSD.

Kwo: We all have a common goal, and that goal being to help promote health in whatever we that we are trained in, and I think we work very well together. We have strengths, they have strengths, and likewise we have weaknesses and they have weaknesses. And in that way I think we're very complimentary.

At any one time, more than 300 students like Kwo help run the clinic at three different San Diego locations: downtown, Pacific Beach, and at Baker Elementary school. Recently, the clinic started a fellowship program in underserved medicine. Dr. Sussi Yamaguchi volunteered here as a pre-dental student years ago. Today, she's the clinic's first dental fellow.  

Yamaguchi: I love it. I wish, you know, I can just do this every day, regardless of my fellowship. But I have to pay back my loans. That's the thing, too.

Over the last ten years, the student-run free clinic has treated more than 7,000 patients. Dr. Ellen Beck says these people would otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

Beck: It makes me very sad because our country hasn't matured to a level, where there's a right to healthcare. So it makes me very sad that part of why we're thriving is because of the infinite, unmet need of the country.

Beck says the clinic is like a candle, a symbol of what can be when people get humanistic care regardless of their circumstances.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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