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Five volunteers gather at the Student-Run Free Clinic at NEOMED

Primary Care, Mental Health Services for Portage Community Continue Despite Pandemic

Four years ago, a new source of health care opened in Portage County to serve people who were uninsured or underinsured. Now known as the Student-Run Free Clinic at NEOMED, this community resource in Rootstown, Ohio, recently summited a new peak: one thousand patient visits.

The growth reflects the large need in this rural community, where access to quality health care can be challenging for people who may have lost their insurance along with a job, or who have insurance that doesn’t adequately cover their needs.

It also reflects the appetite among Northeast Ohio Medical University students –both from the College of Medicine and the College of Pharmacy – to get outside the classroom and into the role of helping patients, says Alicia Bond, M.D. (’16). She herself volunteered when she was a resident and joined the staff as health director in January 2020.

Currently, more than 400 students are on the volunteer roster, which includes several undergraduates from the University of Mount Union who are pursuing physician assistant degrees, along with NEOMED students.  As always, a board-certified attending physician (such as John Boltri, M.D., chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine and medical director of the Clinic) is present whenever the clinic is open, to provide professional oversight and guidance for the students as they interact with patients.

Serving through the pandemic

Rachana Raghupathy, a third-year College of Medicine student who is currently working on quality improvement projects, has volunteered in a variety of patient care and leadership capacities since her first year at NEOMED. “Seeing where we started a few years ago and where we are now? It still kind of blows me away,” she said in a recent conversation.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, the clinic’s staff and volunteers knew that patients would need them more than ever. For a time, the clinic operated exclusively via telehealth visits. Then, Raghupathy and other student leaders, including third-year College of Medicine student Whitney Stolnicki, worked with faculty and staff to steer the clinic toward a hybrid model of care – offering both in-person visits and telehealth (virtual) visits — starting in August.

As the pandemic continues, “We still want to prioritize our patients and provide the best holistic care we can,” says Raghupathy. Some patients may have access to a camera (from a phone or computer), which facilitates a more thorough telehealth visit. But if they don’t, that doesn’t need to stop them, Raghupathy notes: Many patients have been communicating via phone calls.

Here is a sample of the resources that community members can now access at the Clinic.

(For more complete information, visit the Student-Run Free Clinic website.)

Primary care and immunizations: This includes important basics such as a physical exam, patient history, review of medications being taken and medication management. It also includes a check of the patient’s immunization record to identify gaps and needs – anything from this year’s flu shot to a shingles vaccine for someone who has moved into the eligible age group, or routine childhood, adolescent and adult immunizations. Immunizations schedules are available in Spanish as well as English.

Integrated mental health care: If a patient is feeling depressed or anxious and discusses it with the student team at their primary care visit, Ashley Loucek, a behavioral health coordinator, can be consulted and follow-up treatment arranged. Loucek is available every Saturday, during normal clinic hours, to provide counseling and coordinate mental health care needs with outside agencies.

This one-stop setup is a bonus for patients who may feel uncomfortable calling to specifically request an appointment with a counselor, says Raghupathy.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, behavioral health visits by phone became common in many medical practices, and the clinic is no different. In addition, even in normal times, lack of transportation keeps many people from visiting a doctor. Being able to complete the “visit” by phone is helpful, says Raghupathy.

Diabetes and other chronic disease care: Consistent follow-ups and monitoring are crucial for people with chronic diseases. This year, students developed a library of patient education materials to provide additional information that patients can take home as reference. Topics include smoking cessation, COPD and weight loss.

Laboratory tests: for ongoing testing that is needed, for example, for people with diabetes, or to determine if someone visiting the clinic has strep throat.

A warm handoff

Health care professionals at NEOMED and elsewhere refer to “a warm handoff” to describe the compassionate transfer of a patient from one practitioner to the next. It’s a concept that students are taught, and patients value the continuity of care, says Dr. Bond.

“We serve working people, some of whom – because of high premiums – wouldn’t otherwise have access to health care. People are so appreciative. Without the clinic, maybe no one would be checking their labs or notice that their mood had changed.”

For people who have lost jobs due to the pandemic, the clinic can provide resources, such as advice on how to obtain social services, Dr. Bond adds.

COVID-19 precautions

PPE is provided for all volunteers, and further precautions (including, but not limited to, frequent disinfection of surfaces and social distancing among volunteers) are taken to prioritize the health and safety of patients and volunteers. No walk-in patients are currently being taken, due to the pandemic. Patients who believe they may have COVID-19 are asked to call ahead to schedule a telehealth visit.

The Student-Run Free Clinic at NEOMED (formerly known as the SOAR Student-Run Free Clinic) is located in the NEOMED Education and Wellness (NEW) Center, 4211 State Route 44, Rootstown, OH 44272. For questions, contact 330.552.7080 or