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August 03, 2022

Community Free Clinic of Huntsville makes a difference by serving underserved and uninsured patients in Madison County

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Huntsville, Alabama, USA park and downtown cityscape at twilight.A pillar of UAB Heersink School of Medicine is improving the quality of life for all by improving health equity and access. Our students, faculty, residents, fellows, and staff are giving back to the community through acts of service and volunteerism.

In Huntsville, Alabama, the Community Free Clinic of Huntsville provides free, quality health care, education, and medications to thousands of people in Madison County who are deprived of health care benefits. Shotsie Platt, executive director of Community Free Clinic and a team of volunteers comprising local physicians, nurses, and medical students have been running the clinic for almost 20 years by donating their time and money to serve underprivileged populations.

Serving at the clinic offers valuable experiences such as patient encounters, knowledge of prescription drugs, and working in a real-world health care setting with field professionals.

Volunteerism at the clinic offers another unique experience—serving a diverse pool of people. This helps volunteers learn about health conditions and disparities that span beyond a particular group of people. It opens avenues to improve care and poses research opportunities for the future.

Many UAB physicians including Roger Smalligan, M.D., associate vice dean of Huntsville Regional Medical Campus, Melanie Montgomery, M.D., internal medicine physician at the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus, Lourdes Corman, M.D., professor at the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus, and Parekha Yedla, M.D., associate professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine, donate their time to examine patients who do not have health insurance and who cannot afford to be seen by a doctor. Students, residents, and fellows also volunteer, while learning from faculty and treating patients.

Physicians often help patients by referring them to the clinic for post-discharge follow-up to get tests and medications. The clinic is supplemented by an on-site dispensary that fulfills prescriptions.

Yedla has been volunteering for more than five years at the clinic and says that “It is very satisfying to make a difference in other people’s lives and improve the overall health of our community.”

David Monaco is a UAB medical student has been volunteering with Huntsville Community Free Clinic since 2019 as an Emergency Medical Technician. He has now transitioned to volunteering in a medical student capacity. He has always enjoyed volunteering, but in his gap year, he challenged himself to better learn and serve the underserved community in the primary care setting.

“Meeting and getting to know the patients, their families, and the other volunteers has probably been one of the most fulfilling experiences for me.”

Volunteers at the clinic range from medical students, nurses, physicians, dermatologists, ophthalmologists, and psychiatrists. “All these people are volunteering their time at the free clinic for over a decade, helping save thousands of lives which is an inspiration for me and others,” Yedla said.

The clinic offers mutual benefits to medical students and patients. UAB faculty who volunteer at the clinic inspire future medical leaders and involve them in serving uninsured patients. This way, students and trainees have an opportunity to learn in a clinical setting and the patients can get quality, free health care. Students like Monaco can familiarize themselves with leading patient encounters.

“Volunteering here has helped me be comfortable with patient encounters and has developed a better understanding of social determinants of health and all other limiting factors for patients,” Monaco said.

For students, volunteerism has not just been fulfilling, but an eye-opening experience as they get to see patients’ struggles first-hand. Monaco mentions a time when a patient, who was a younger individual, visited the clinic after a major cardiothoracic surgery to refill his medications, but had to leave abruptly because of transportation issues.

“Seeing that transportation was the limitation for this individual was a stark and saddening realization for myself especially given the severity of his case,” Monaco said. “And this wasn’t a one-off story; there were multiple times patients had to leave because of jobs, transportation, taking care of family members, and many other important reasons.”

Why Volunteer?

For our Heersink School of Medicine’s volunteers, service is meaningful and gratifying for a variety of reasons. “One of the wonderful things about volunteering there is working with like-minded people, with a common goal of improving the quality of life of the underserved,” Yedla says. “Sometimes we diagnose life-threatening conditions and transfer patients in a timely manner to our hospital and help improve their outcome, which is gratifying.”

Yedla and Monaco encourage other physicians and students to join hands with them to make a difference in the community.

“I am hopeful for young physicians to volunteer in their local communities when they can because an hour of our time can make a difference in the lives of multiple people,” Yedla said.

According to Monaco, volunteering at Community Free Clinic of Huntsville is an empowering experience for medical students and it is a place where many talents can be helpful.

“We all have talents and time, albeit sometimes limited, and immeasurable love to share with others in our communities,” he said. “It is never too late for someone to volunteer for something they are curious or passionate about.”