The doors wouldn’t open until 9 a.m., but by 7:15 on a recent morning a crowd had gathered outside the VA Medical Center in Menlo Park. About 30 patients – some homeless, some immigrants, almost all uninsured – lined up for something most of them thought was unattainable: free medical care from Stanford University doctors and medical students.
“I’ve always felt health care is a human right,” said Dr. Lars Osterberg, co-medical director of the Arbor Free Clinic, a Sunday-only center run entirely by Stanford medical students and faculty. “In this country, we don’t have that right, so when I was in med school, I vowed to do something to provide it – at least for a few patients.”
More than 500 Stanford medical and premed students and about 50 physicians and specialists take turns volunteering Sundays at Arbor or Saturdays at its sister establishment, Pacific Free Clinic in San Jose.
On a recent Sunday, three undergraduate volunteers scribbled furiously on the charts of the 32 patients in the waiting room. A fourth, junior biochemistry major Jonathan Kotzin, translated for a group of Spanish-speaking patients.
In the long corridor off the waiting room, a dozen students pricked patients’ forearms for tuberculosis tests, scrutinized lab results, doled out flu vaccines and matched patients with doctors on a giant dry-erase board. Every white coat in the building belonged to someone volunteering his or her weekend to be there.
In a private room, first-year medical student Jevon Plunkett examined a 59-year-old woman with diabetes – her first patient at the free clinic. She teamed with Dr. Mark Perlroth, a retired cardiology professor who had been volunteering there more than 10 years.
“It’s such a great way to learn,” Plunkett said, emerging from the exam room. “Here, outside the classroom, I can actually see the complexities of the American health care system. I get to hear stories and know patients, and learn what I can do to make a difference as a doctor.”
According to Osterberg, patients at the clinic have “fallen through the cracks.” Physicians and students conduct screenings and exams, address immediate needs, then determine what government health care programs patients might be eligible for and help them get established at local medical facilities that can provide regular care.
Koa Finau and her four children, ages 7, 5, 3 and 1, were among the first in line at the clinic. The Menlo Park homeless shelter in which they were staying requires all residents to be tested for tuberculosis.
“The shelter said this clinic was open on the weekend, and we need the results by Monday so we can keep staying there,” Finau said. “It’s been tough getting health care without insurance.”
The clinics, which have more than 2,500 visits a year, each have a $150,000 budget, which pays for supplies and small tuition stipends for the four student clinic managers. Stanford Hospital and Clinics provides free lab tests and helps fund an electronic medical records system.
County health programs donate vaccines and Menlo Park’s VA Medical Center and San Jose’s Overfelt High School donate space. Even the Stanford student government supports the clinics, pitching in more than $31,000 this year.
Yet the clinics, like their patients, have suffered from the economic downturn. They once gave patients vouchers for free prescriptions and eyeglasses, but donations dried up. Without a $5,000 gift from a private donor, Arbor would not have been able to stock its medicine cabinet this year.
But clinic volunteers agree they have something to offer that needy patients – and future doctors – can’t get anywhere else.
“Once, we got the clinical chief of neurology at Stanford to come in and do a free consult,” recalled Dr. Peter Kao, co-medical director at the Pacific Free Clinic.
“A young man from India was having trouble lifting his legs – signs of a neurological condition,” Kao said. “He e-mailed us asking for help. The chief of neurology worked with one of our students to diagnose him.”