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HL20: Ellen Beck, MD—Giving Life to Hope in the Desert of the Underserved

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, December 13, 2012

Beck emphasizes what she calls "a humanistic empowerment" approach, which she says helps these future doctors understand the social determinants of disease, such as issues in patients' living situations, their levels of stress, and even their job situations.

The clinics' patients have an array of common or chronic illnesses, from high blood pressure to diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and depression. 

Foot and eye exams for patients with diabetes, renal function status checks, wound care, "all our services are completely free to the patient," Beck says. "With students' passion and commitment, we've been able to help patients with cancer deal with challenges to securing surgery and care, and have had some success that led to patient cures," she adds.

The entire medical portion of the operation is funded with about $1.5 million a year from foundations, private donations, and the medical school. But millions more come from in-kind contributions such as discounted lab testing and volunteering doctors.

By filling this gap, the clinics not only lift a costly burden from acute care hospitals and clinics in the area, but also spawned a federally funded training program, through which Beck teaches like-minded physicians how to start similar clinics in their cities. At least 10 successful free clinics have been created, many by former students.

Getting the clinics started was tough at first. UCSD officials had questions.  "They were appropriately wary of the level of quality we would provide in the basement of a church," Beck says. "And, of course, they wanted to be sure that every medical student would absolutely be supervised as they provided care to these patients," she says.

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