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Local Free Clinic Models Holistic Approach to Healthcare

Visit the Ada Jenkins Center in Davidson on a Thursday afternoon and you'll find a quiet, old, school building with creaky floors and timeworn walls, and visitors following bilingual signs for various human services down the hallways. But visit on a Thursday night, and you'll find those halls abuzz with activity and a line at the door as dozens of volunteers get the evening's free clinic up and running.

The historic brick building at 212 Gamble St. houses the Free Clinic of Our Towns, bringing area residents an innovative, forward-thinking approach to healthcare.

"The thing that most distinguishes our clinic from other clinics is it provides services for the whole person," clinic director Bri Niggel said. She took over as director in May, and also is a research professor in the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services. She says the clinic's holistic approach to care should be a model for other clinics, and that current research suggests the same.

The clinic opens its doors weekly to patients who live in North Mecklenburg and South Iredell counties and do not have health insurance. In many cases, patients are facing challenges that extend beyond their physical health, Niggel said, and clinic staff and volunteers work hard to address all of the patients' wellness needs.

Treating the Person

"There are physical, emotional and financial determinants of health," said Kristie Foley, associate director and professor of medical humanities at Davidson College. "Ada recognizes those social determinants of health and is aggregating care in the right way for its patients."

Ada serves as a good example for Foley's "Issues in Medicine" class, in which students learn the strengths and limits of approaching care from a solely medical-science perspective.

"Patient needs are not specialized in the ways the medical profession is," she said. "We need a healthcare system that helps the whole person, and that is just what Ada is doing on a small scale."

In addition to medical, dental, specialty and psychological care, patients have access to other assistance through the Ada Jenkins community center, which houses 21 different programs in health, education and human services, and serves about 20,000 people annually in different ways.

Student Volunteers

In 2013, the clinic served 1,057 patients through 1,329 patient visits. With just two part-time paid staff members and a budget of around $230,000, the clinic relies heavily on its dozens of volunteers to function. Dedicated volunteer healthcare professionals provide services for free to adults and children suffering acute and chronic health problems, and volunteers from the community and the college help with different tasks, including patient intake and charts, conducting lab tests and interpreting for Spanish-speaking patients.

Nearly 30 of the volunteers are Davidson College students, with different backgrounds, majors and interests.

"The volunteers are not all pre-med students," said Naila Mamoon, director of Davidson College's pre-medicine program. In fact, many students who are studying political science, sociology, Hispanic studies and other relevant subjects are interested in primary care and volunteer their time at the clinic, she said.

"Having students with a variety of skills and interests is very valuable to us," Niggel said. "I've been blown away by their intelligence, work ethic, social skills and creative approaches to problem solving in this fast-paced, demanding environment."

About 20 doctors and mid-level practitioners volunteer their time, including primary care physicians and pediatricians, an endocrinologist, a urologist, a dermatologist, a chiropractor and a psychologist. Additional volunteers include about 20 nurses, dentists and dental assistants, a phlebotomist, and a volunteer social worker who meets with all patients prior to discharge to discuss their diagnoses, treatments and any additional needs they may have.

"It's a great place for students to see the whole gamut of healthcare services under one roof, with so many role models in different areas of service and different specialties," Mamoon said.

"Above all, they gain an awareness that health is not just a function in biology; there are psycho-social and political elements as well," she said. "This team approach is where I think healthcare in the United States is headed, and they are seeing it first-hand."