Again and again, UNM medical student Roberto Agüero has witnessed the direct impact homelessness can have on health.
“On any given night in the center there is the possibility of having to call for an ambulance just because of the nature of these patients being homeless,” Aguero says while standing in the 70-bed dormitory area of the newly remodeled Albuquerque Opportunity Center.
The shelter, at 715 Candelaria Rd NE, is home to the student-led Healthcare Resource Center, the first of its kind in New Mexico. Every Tuesday, students from across the UNM Health Sciences Center staff a physician-supervised clinic, which provides an array of healthcare services for residents.
Aguero has worked with the homeless for several years and is writing his sixth grant to find funding for needed resources. From prescription vouchers to medical supplies, the demands are great.
He talks of patients who get confused on what medications they have taken because they have no shelf to house them. Days spent trying to get refills for diabetic medications. Small things that add to potentially catastrophic medical results.
As an example, he recalls a patient in heart failure. “His heart medication was a strong diuretic, yet he felt he couldn’t take it during the daytime because he wasn’t where he could go to the bathroom and he felt like if he took it at night then he couldn’t sleep in the dorm.”
Such cases, inevitiably, result in complications that lead to repeated trips to the ER.
There are two over-riding goals at the Healthcare Resource Center, says Cynthia Arndell, MD, who helped develop the program and volunteers for the clinics. “One is to have our students gain expertise in serving vulnerable populations. The other is to provide training in an interdisciplinary, interprofessional approach to healthcare. Everyone has a place at the table after volunteering at the clinics. Everyone sits down with the attending physicians to talk about what can be done.”
The second goal lies in educating the students in how to work in an interdisciplinary setting.
“This is the model or how medicine will be practiced in the future,” says Arndell. “It is critical that our students gain knowledge and experience from other disciplines.”
Clinic volunteers include HSC students from the physician assistant, nursing, pharmacy, and physical therapy and occupational therapy programs. Social work student volunteers from New Mexico State University and Highlands, as well as students from alternative modalities like massage and reiki therapy also participate. All are working to build health educational resources for the center’s residents.
Michel Disco, assistant dean for external programs at the UNM College of Pharmacy and an associate clinical professor of pharmacy practice & administrative sciences, says the center offers a completely new experience for students.
"Our pharmacy students have to be the in the top of the class to get (accepted into the pharmacy program),” Disco says. “They are gifted and they may never have seen this world before – yet they need to see it in order to work toward advocating for these patients. I want them to be able to see the big picture. They are exactly the people who can make that difference.”
Physical therapy and occupational therapy students have been involved for about a year, adds Fred Carey, PhD, assistant professor of Physical Therapy.
“The physical therapy program has a history of being involved with community services, including volunteering for adaptive sports camps,” he says. “They see a true need for our services when they become involved here.”
The same holds true for nursing students, including those specializing in psychiatric nursing. “They see the need for their skills here,” says Robert Elgie, MSN, RN, an instructor in the UNM College of Nursing. “They know they can make a difference.”
The project is also actively recruiting students from other institutions including social work students from Highland and NMSU and massage school students for the Albuquerque School of Massage, says Disco. “In planning for this, we really have spent a good deal of time thinking about where the gaps in care are in these communities and how we can bridge that.”
“We are excited to be a part of this,” says Dawn Saunder, owner of the Albuquerque School of Massage. “Our students want to be involved and massage therapy is one of the most requested services at the shelter. “
“We know that we have an integrative role to play," she continues. " At the national level it is a struggle in a number of ways to be given a place at the table, but I never see it as a struggle to work with this group.”