UTRGV School of Medicine opens first student-run clinic

PENITAS — The first group of medical students at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley have taken upon themselves to start the first student-run clinic in the region with a focus on supplying health care to the Valley’s poorest.

“Our school is very good about inviting us to the community,” said Julien Mahler, 25. “They took us to countless different colonias through Cameron County, Hidalgo and Starr. So through that experience, our class, our cohort, built this idea that we wanted to pursue a community-based emphasis here at UTRGV School of Medicine.”

Mahler is part of the inaugural cohort of UTRGV medical students that began their studies here in 2016. The class worked together to structure the project, pick a location, and held elections to select a five-member board that would lead the project, which Mahler is a part of along with Nery Guerrero, Joseph Boateng, Sravan Narapureddy and Joy Alvarado.

The team has done everything from grant writing, to connecting with community partners and developing a model that not only provides free health care to underserved communities, but that is sustainable and can be replicated by future cohorts.

“There’s five of us that are board members, but we are also training five first-year (students) who will be taking over the project,” Mahler said. “So sustainability is a very big part of this.”

Choosing a location wasn’t easy considering there are more than 900 colonias in Hidalgo County alone. They initially selected from areas where there was already some sort of community effort to provide health-related services, but where help from physicians was still needed.

That’s how Peñitas was identified as the university had already been working with Proyecto Desarrollo Humano, a local nonprofit organization that offers wellness-related services, to provide some health screenings and other services through UTRGV’s mobile clinics.

The nonprofit and the university signed a memorandum of understanding in which Proyecto Desarrollo Humano will provide space free of charge for the clinic.

The students will start by opening the clinic once a month at the nonprofit, located on 17617 Sabal Palm Dr., and they will have between 15 and 20 student volunteers providing health services while being overseen by two to three faculty members, said Dr. Linda Nelson, senior director of clinical operations at UTRGV.

“They have a free-standing clinic that has been in the community for a long time. They are very organized and have a lot of contact with the colonias,” Nelson said about the nonprofit. “I think the students were taken by this very needy community that stood there with their arms wide open to allow them to use the clinic, to allow them to be part of what they had.”

Nelson is one of the UTRGV faculty mentoring the students in some areas of the medical enterprise, but she said they are the sole decision makers of the project.

During the summer of 2017, the students coordinated focus groups with area residents and organization leaders in order to hear the community on the services most needed. They concluded that basic health screening was needed considering the nearest clinic is more than 20 miles away and many of these people shy away from seeking preventative care due to poverty or lack of legal status in the United States.

“It is good for the community to see the young people that are getting into the medical field wanting to come to them,” said Sister Fatima Santiago, executive director of Proyecto Desarrollo Humano. “That’s kind of adding dignity to them, that not only doctors who come give them service, and that students are the ones organizing.”

Santiago said a large portion of the area population is at high risk for diabetes or has already developed the disease, and even as they try to guide them to healthier lifestyle free medical attention is key to keep these and other diseases at bay or under control.

“One of the number one things that the community themselves pointed out was more education – healthcare education, diet education, lifestyle education – and those are things that medical students are great at providing because we have the time to spend with the patient,” Narapureddy said. “Other needs are general medical care. Doing screenings, doing vaccinations.”

To their knowledge, this is the first student-run clinic to be set up in a colonia in the state, the students said, and they hope that in the future this becomes a model to follow so other students can make their mark in underserved areas.

“A time might come that there might be 20 student-run clinics in the Valley and they are all going to be based on the model that we are creating right now,” Boateng said. “At this time it is difficult to set a timeline… but as you have seen in one year we have done a lot so it is the anticipation that if we keep the momentum we will probably be able to fully integrate other specialties soon – like nursing, pharmacy, pediatrics… That is the goal to incorporate all specialties, but to get that goal we have to get our foundation right.”

Boateng and the team gleamed with excitement to be the ones to establish this service in one of the most underserved communities in the area. This is an opportunity, they said, that is unique to UTRGV considering the school of medicine is still in its start-up phase and the unique challenges presented to them in a border region.

“You get to see all the needs that a patient has – whether it’s education, employment – and how their community, the infrastructure impacts people’s health,” Mahler said. “By being in there, in the colonia, you are going to be seeing that once a month and it gives the students the opportunity to really go out there and say ‘These issues, these things lacking in the community infrastructure, are impacting their health.”

This direct interaction with the community is what these students hope will give them a better understanding of a patient as a whole as they don’t only get to worry about what the patient told them during examination but they get to see and experience the conditions they live in and the socio-economic hurdles they face on a daily basis.

“It’s been said that medical training actually happens in classrooms, but interaction with the community is what actually develops the soul of the physician,” Boateng said.