This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: “I’ve got a problem with my eye. It feels like it’s going to fall out,” a male patient exclaimed.
The eye was protruding, a clear indication that he needed help -- and fast. He had already been to another local clinic where he was sent home with an appointment card dated three months in the future. His options were running out.
Fortunately, this time he was talking with Margie Diekemper, a community nurse with the Institute for Family Medicine. Diekemper got him an appointment with an ophthalmologist within two days. The ophthalmologist sent him by ambulance to Saint Louis University Hospital where he was rushed into surgery to remove a tumor pressing against his eyeball.
This situation is entirely too common, according to Diekemper. Too many people are unable to get adequate and timely health care.
The Institute for Family Medicine has launched its 16th community health clinic to serve the disadvantaged clients of the Joint Neighborhood Ministry. The Joint Neighborhood Ministry, operating with the motto “More than Just a Soup Can,” provides food, clothing, financial assistance and referrals to other resources for poor people in the 63118 and 63104 ZIP codes.
The ministry knew its largely uninsured clients needed better access to health services. The Institute for Family Medicine is helping to fill that need.
The institute is a nonprofit organization that establishes collaborative partnerships with schools, shelters and other social service organizations to provide health care to the uninsured, underinsured and underserved throughout St. Louis.
“The biggest problem is access,” Dr. David Campbell, president and CEO of the Institute for Family Medicine, said. “We bring health care closer to where the clients are. We hope to provide a ‘safety net.’ There are holes in the system and we want to provide one layer below for the folks falling through.”
The institute will maintain an on-site clinic at the Joint Neighborhood Ministry. Campbell will see patients there twice a month and Diekemper will be available three times a week.
“My role is to screen people and talk with them to discern the next level of needed health care. Part of my role is not only to get them into appropriate care but to teach them and (then) reinforce how to use that care appropriately,” Diekemper said.
Even when patients have initial access to care, follow-up treatment is key to their ongoing health and the efficient use of health-care resources.
“Follow up, that’s the real beauty of what we are creating. Here we know they will be physically present. By offering them consistent care, keeping them on medicine, it is less likely they will be a long-term cost to the system,” Campbell said.
The collaborative effort with the food pantry allows the institute to provide care at a location where people are already receiving services from others they trust.
“Taking that first step into health care is intimidating," Campbell said.
Joan Hensley, executive director of Joint Neighborhood Ministry, said the people who visit the food pantry have low-paying jobs or no jobs at all. "They can't afford rent, utilities, food, and clothing, much less medical care,” she said.
The major obstacle for the clinic will be funding. “We can get reasonably priced lab work, but if (the patients) need more sophisticated care, beyond the scope of primary care, we have no control over the cost,” Campbell said. The institute relies heavily on grants and contributions.
The faith and strength of the clients are an inspiration for those who work at the ministry. “I am amazed at how little people live on, and their attitudes. Most of the time they tell me they’re blessed. This [clinic] is a dream come true and I look for wonderful things to happen,” Hensley said.