January 18, 2019
Kim North Shine
PINCKNEY, Mich.—Inside a 125-year-old red brick building on Main Street in downtown Pinckney is the equivalent of any doctor’s office, but this one treats patients regardless of their ability to pay.
Twice a week, dozens of low-income Livingston County residents in need of medical care visit the University of Michigan’s Student-Run Free Clinic.
More than 500 patients are seen each year for regular checkups, sick visits, x-rays, and lab and other diagnostic tests at no charge. They can receive prescriptions and assistance of all sorts, including signing up for health care coverage or other benefits they may be entitled to.
For some patients the clinic is a life-saver: a liver patient who lost his job and insurance; people living with diabetes and in need of insulin and monitoring; patients with pneumonia or kidney disease.
Samuel Cartes from Brighton relies on the clinic. He receives treatment for diabetes, a condition that if left untreated could lead to serious health concerns, if not death.
“Sometimes it’s just that you can’t find the care you need for that one little thing,” Cartes said.
For patients such as Sarah Donner from Fenton, the clinic provides yearly checkups and prescription refills.
“I don’t have the money to go to a regular doctor,” she said.
The clinic opens its doors every Wednesday and Saturday, and is the only free clinic in the county.
“Without the clinic, many have nowhere to go,” said Dr. Hari Conjeevaram, a physician and professor of medicine at the U-M Medical School. He is one of several professors and physicians who volunteer at the clinic, guiding the medical students and supporting the patients.
“We have many grateful patients,” Conjeevaram said.
A local firefighter is so grateful for the care he’s received over the years he shows his gratitude by helping out at the clinic.
“And the students are learning to be great doctors who understand the critical role of treating people without access to health care and of the importance of keeping a community healthy and out of hospitals and emergency rooms,” he said.
U-M students from the schools of dentistry, nursing, pharmacy and public health also work in the clinic.
The clinic began as a pilot program in April 2012 and became a full-fledged “safety net” clinic in October the same year. Four months later a fire destroyed the clinic, and it moved to its current location. Students raised money to move to a new location, and it’s grown every year since.
Natasha Radke’s job as health promotion coordinator for the Livingston County Health Department is focused on helping locals stay healthy and out of hospitals so that they be productive citizens by staying well. The clinic is crucial, she said.
“The U-M free clinic is providing a solution to people who normally wouldn’t have access to care or normally aren’t having their health care needs met,” she said.
Besides using their medical education to treat a range of health concerns, the students are also learning how to run a medical office, including the many operational and administrative duties that come with it.
“We actually have a whole program that aims to help people get set up with Medicaid and insurance coverage and hopefully some better long term care,” said Eric Wilson, a first-year student at the U-M Medical School.
Perhaps more importantly, said Conjeevaram, are the relationships made, interactions that teach the students compassion and empathy for patients who often are in difficult life situations and struggles beyond their control.
Morgan White, a fourth-year medical student, working as any doctor would, moves patient to patient, student to student, providing care on her days at the clinic. She directs and oversees the ordering of tests and treatment plans and more.
“I think that the Student-Run Free Clinic has been one of the places in which I have learned about my heart to care for the underserved,” White said.
The clinic draws on its connection to U-M, providing patients with diagnostic tests from labs and imaging such as radiology on the medical school campus—also free of charge.
While the clinic is completely run by U-M medical students with collaborations in the schools of Nursing, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Public Health, it relies on Michigan Medicine care providers to volunteer as preceptors overseeing the clinical care of patients and the instruction of students.
For Cartes, who comes for diabetes care, it’s about being treated medically and also being treated with respect.
“I love it here,” he said during a recent visit. “They’re always really professional and treat you like a person.”