On a Thursday evening in Southwest Roanoke, a medical clinic opens its doors for patients. With nine exam rooms, a nurse’s station, a small pharmacy and lab, it looks like any other doctor’s office, but there is one big difference. It’s the Bradley Free Clinic where patients who, due to social and economic circumstances, come seeking free care for illnesses, minor injuries, and ongoing medical conditions.
The clinic is partly staffed by Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students who put aside their studies on Thursday evenings and go to work.
“It’s a wonderful chance to work with and learn from a diverse population of patients in our community,” said Meyha Swaroop, a rising third-year student at the medical school who started working at the clinic early in her first year. “I have learned so much about medical conditions as well as ways in which we, as future physicians, can help improve access to care for our own patients.”
Volunteering at the clinic is one of the most popular service opportunities at the school with available student slots filling a month in advance.
“This clinical experience at such an early time in the students’ career really excites and encourages them,” said Randy Rhea, faculty preceptor at the medical school. “By the time they get to their rotations in their third year, they are more comfortable in a clinical setting. It gives them a leg up.”
During the course of an evening, the students divide into two groups to see patients.
Under the watchful eye of a physician preceptor, who is also a volunteer, first and second year students interview patients, discuss their symptoms, notate their history, and take their vitals. Upper-level students discuss possible diagnoses and treatments. Everything is then presented to the preceptor, whose role is to oversee each patient encounter and make the final decision on the course of treatment.
The student teams are collaborative in the truest sense. Each team member brings an important role to the process. Younger teammates are helped and encouraged by the older ones, who were once new at it themselves.
“One of the beautiful parts of this process is that they teach one another,” Rhea said. “Because of the problem-based learning curriculum at the medical school, they are accustomed to teaching and learning from each other, and they really shine.”
The Bradley Free Clinic opened its doors in 1974 with a mission that has remained constant to this day: to provide free medical, dental, and pharmacy care for low-income, working patients using volunteer health care professionals. Over the years, the clinic’s steady growth has matched that of the need of its patient population. Services have expanded to include mental health services, eye care, educational classes, and social services to name a few.
Rhea, a family medicine physician with Carilion Clinic, started volunteering at the clinic during his family practice residency at Carilion Clinic in the mid-80s and has been a celebrated volunteer for the organization ever since. He became a member of the clinic’s board of directors early on and has served as president of the board for 22 years.
He also helped members of the school’s charter class start a volunteer effort at the clinic. Originally organized as a class project, the effort quickly took off among the students and has continued long after the first class graduated. VTC student night happens every Thursday year round.
“It’s not surprising at all that the relationship between VTC students and the Bradley Free Clinic has flourished,” said Chris Vieau, alumnus and member of the charter class who started volunteering at the clinic in 2010. “Volunteering at the Bradley Free Clinic emphasizes two of the VTC community’s greatest strengths – a commitment to serve those in need and pairing students with mentors.”
Nine years later, and students still find the program an integral part of their medical education.
“Volunteering at the Free Clinic is a highlight of my medical school experience,” said Parker Hambright, third-year student and coordinator of scheduling for Thursday nights. “You get to integrate all the skills you’ve been learning into a clinical setting and provide them to patients in need. You can tell the patients are very appreciative of your efforts, and it makes the experience that much more enjoyable.”
Even though she will not be going into a primary care specialty, fourth-year student Mira Tanenbaum is another regular at the clinic.
“The Free Clinic is a pretty great place where you get to really use what you’re learning to make a strong impact on the community,” she said. “It’s a service that I find really valuable, and I want to be able to contribute wherever I end up after medical school.”
On any given Thursday night, students encounter patients with any number of ailments that are typically seen in a regular medical practice. Hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, thyroid abnormalities, colds and flu, and mental health issues, to name a few. Much of the clientele is made up of patients who visit on a regular basis, which allows the students to build up a rapport and offer continuity of care during the time they are in medical school.
“It has really opened my eyes to struggles that I wasn’t necessarily exposed to in the bubble I grew up in,” Tanenbaum said. “I’ve always been covered by health insurance, so it’s been really eye opening seeing where medicine falls short. It motivates me to help fill in the gap as much as possible.”
The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine emphasizes humanism in medicine, a concept woven throughout its curriculum. Students are taught that health care is a respectful and compassionate relationship between physicians, all other members of the health care team, and their patients. Humanism reflects attitudes and behaviors that are sensitive to the values and the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of others.
“I think that’s one of the primary reasons many of them volunteer at the Bradley Free Clinic,” Rhea said. “They are giving back to the community in such a big way. It’s a powerful experience for them.”