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UAMS Student-led Effort to Broaden Services at Little Rock Free Clinic

By Nancy Dockter, MPH
Diversity Process Coordinator
Center for Diversity Affairs

Anjali Saxena
College of Medicine,
Class of 2014

A largely student-led initiative at Harmony Health Clinic in east Little Rock is bringing together two related trends in academic health – a greater focus on the social determinants of health* and an emphasis on community-based learning – both of which help students understand factors that contribute to the health of low-income persons.

A band of dedicated UAMS medical students is working hard to establish a program which will link patients to social service agencies. The agencies help individuals obtain things such as safe and affordable housing, jobs skills, food … the kinds of things most of us take for granted and which can have a huge impact on health and wellness.

The referral process will be facilitated by HelpSteps.com (formerly known as The Online Advocate), a search toolset developed by Boston Children’s Hospital. The HelpSteps.com system is being made available for use to Harmony Health Clinic as part of a pilot program to extend the reach of the system beyond the Boston area.  

Dr. Eric Fleegler, founder of HelpSteps.com, states: “Every day we care for patients that have a myriad of health-related social problems, ranging from food insecurity, lack of insurance, unsafe housing, domestic violence and other problems. These problems often lurk just below the radar of the health care providers. If we can help families help themselves with these social problems, we will improve the health of our patients and communities. I believe that HelpSteps.com’s work with the Harmony Health Clinic is the right step in that direction.”

A program with similar goals called Health Leads has received national acclaim for its positive impact on thousands of patients since its inception in 1996. It is now at more than 20 sites in six cities.

The effort to bring HelpSteps to Harmony Health Clinic is led by third-year medical student Anjali Saxena, who has volunteered there since her first year in medical school. Saxena, who calls her time at the clinic “a vital part of my education,” feels that connecting with low-income patients in that setting encourages students to have a less judgmental attitude towards those who are having a hard time living a healthy lifestyle.

“It helps you understand what the struggles are in the community,” she says. Also, the experience improves students’ communication skills. “They know what to ask their patients.”

“Many people in health care, including myself, often feel frustrated when patients are ‘non-compliant’ and do not take care of themselves in the way that we want them too – it feels like it is out of control,” Saxena said. However, by digging deeper into the social needs of our patients, we will be able to design better treatment plans that fit the social circumstances of our patients. By doing so, we can impact health, patient satisfaction, and job satisfaction.”

Harmony Health Clinic opened in 2008 and is run almost entirely by volunteers, many of whom are affiliated with UAMS. Students and physicians donate their time to see patients by appointment on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Outpatient preventive and acute care, management of some chronic conditions, and prescription assistance are free to individuals who meet eligibility requirements. A free dental clinic is on Friday mornings.

The clinic is always in need of more volunteers – students and professionals. For more information about volunteer opportunities, contact Silvana Berlinski, the clinic’s volunteer coordinator, at silvana.berlinski@harmonyclinicar.org. Anyone interested in a tour of the clinic should contact Ron Bara at r.barama@gmail.com or Eddie Pannell at executive.director@harmonyclinicar.org.

* The social determinants of health are the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. These circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics. ~ World Health Organization. Social Determinants of Health: Final Report. http://www.who.int/social_determinants/en/