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Nursing Students Treat the Homeless, Working Poor & Underserved | CSUSM Steps Magazine

On any given Saturday morning at the Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach, dozens of homeless men and women gather for a free community breakfast. For many of them, this is the only hot meal they will have in days. Afterwards attendees are encouraged to take advantage of free services offered by several organizational partners, including a CSUSM student-run nursing clinic called the Student Healthcare Project. The project, which also runs a clinic on Wednesday evenings just a few blocks away at the First Baptist Church of Ocean Beach, sees 75 to 100 clients each week who are seeking basic care and medical attention.

Resource to the Community, Educational Opportunity for Students

Founded in 2011, the Student Healthcare Project provides CSUSM nursing undergraduate and graduate students meaningful, hands-on experiences in the community that trains them in delivering primary care services while simultaneously improving access to excellent care in underserved communities.

“I think of these clinics as having two clear purposes that overlap with each other,” said School of Nursing Director Denise Boren. “The first purpose is to be of service to the community. Our clients are indigent and have a lot of barriers that prevent them from receiving medical care. At our clinics, they see a friendly face and get connected to that care that many so desperately need. The second purpose is to provide our students with diverse, hands on experiences that prepare them to be better, more compassionate and competent nurses.”

Wearing their nursing uniforms and stethoscopes, two undergraduate nursing students work as clinic managers at each clinic for a semester, a highly competitive position that fulfills their community health requirement for their degree. Other students volunteer to see patients as part of a required community health care component for degree completion. They talk to patients about their health, ailments and preventive care, update charts and apply what they learned in the classroom to each patient they see.

Among those overseeing the students is Mary Baker, director of CSUSM Healthcare Projects, a clinical nurse specialist in Advanced Public Health and the project’s medical director, Dr. William “Gerry” Hardison. Other faculty include Jason Saude, MSN and Linnea Axman, NP.

“The clinic managers are responsible for nearly everything,” said Baker. “They do patient intake, provide patient education, order supplies — they even clean the restrooms! They are proactive, independent leaders. But the students enjoy it because they are challenged and because they feel like they are making a real difference.”

Students offer hygienic care products — such as new socks, razors, toothpaste and soap — and over-the-counter medications to clients. They also provide wound care, healthcare screenings, social service referrals and discount prescriptions for generic drugs.

“Our clinics are important because these patients have nowhere else to go other than the emergency room, which is a waste of resources for relatively minor conditions that we can easily handle,” Dr. Hardison said. “If they need additional or more specialized care, we can help make an accurate diagnosis and provide a referral letter with the data that an emergency room doctor or primary care physician would need to provide them with appropriate treatment.”

Additionally, once a month medical students from the UCSD School of Medicine in Underserved Health work with the nursing students to provide care to the patient population.

A Service in Demand, a Region in Need

In May 2013 the Regional Task Force on the Homeless reported that nearly 8,900 people in San Diego County live in shelters, in vehicles or on the street. Over 1,700 of those people live in North County.

“The Student Healthcare Project is exposing me to a different kind of nursing,” said Laura Lembi, one of the student clinic managers now in her last semester of the accelerated bachelors of nursing program.  “I am learning what nurses can do in the community and how we can help underserved populations such as the unsheltered. I feel like this experience is opening my eyes to a stigmatized population that I now better understand.”

Lembi plans to graduate in December and says that being a clinic manager has provided her with the skills and experience that will give her a cutting edge in the competitive nursing job market.

The Future of the Project

All of the nursing clinics are currently funded almost entirely by community donations, but Baker is hopeful that the School of Nursing will be able to raise funds to provide mental health and dental care, and expand services to include vaccinations and on-site testing for sexually transmitted diseases. She would also like to partner with a pharmacist who could oversee the furnishing of medications. Dr. Hardison envisions purchasing a portable ultrasound machine that would have hundreds of applications for diagnosing internal injuries or problems, such as ectopic pregnancy, gallstones, liver damage and soft tissue damage.

Due to regional demand, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church has offered a partnership with the School of Nursing, donating the use of a 1,600 sq. ft. house on the Pacific Coast Highway in Oceanside. The new clinic will open this winter and Baker looks forward to expanding that location to include services provided by other CSUSM students studying kinesiology, social work, speech-language pathology and literacy. The School of Nursing is also considering partnerships to open clinics in National City and Hillcrest.

“It is very rewarding being able to help patients that are so grateful for even the smallest things,” reflected Lembi. “And it makes me feel like I am really making a difference in the community.”

For more information on the Student Healthcare Project and for clinic locations and hours, visit