Leon Chen serves as a physician assistant for the Mobile Outreach Clinic and says healthcare isn't a privilege. It's a right. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Inside the effort to bring healthcare to Gainesville’s uninsured

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Above, Leon Chen speaks about his work for WUFT-FM. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Leon Chen is a physician assistant with the University of Florida Mobile Outreach Clinic. The clinic partners with undergraduate students to serve uninsured people in Gainesville.

While Chen said the clinic’s patients are often migrant workers and those without housing, more than 12% of Gainesville residents under 65 were uninsured according to the last census.

WUFT’s Katie Hyson spoke with Chen about his experiences working with the clinic. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Can you explain what the Mobile Outreach Clinic does?

A lot of our patients have no insurance, they’re migrants workers, or kind of looking for some help in between. So we offer our services: free health screenings for hypertension, diabetes management, women’s health — we actually do family planning and IUD insertions at no cost for the patient — school physicals and checkups.

We’ve also partnered with the College of Medicine and we became a teaching place for a lot of medical students and [physician assistant] students to do their clinical rotations and learn how to practice medicine.

What areas does the mobile clinic serve?

We find hotspots in the community of Gainesville and find areas that we partner with. We work with a lot of the churches here. Every semester, we kind of rotate with different areas.

Every Thursday morning, we go to GRACE Marketplace, which is our local homeless shelter here. We park the bus actually in the basketball court there and a lot of the GRACE patients come and see us for their needs. So it’s actually a good thing to do. And we work with GRACE pharmacy and the clinics there to establish some sort of continuity of care, primary care, for them.

(View the Mobile Outreach Clinic’s full schedule.)

By hotspots, do you mean places where there are more people who are uninsured and needing services?

Yeah, so one of the things that we worry about, or hopefully target, is the vulnerable population that fall between the gaps of having insurance and not being able to see a health care provider. Part of the [Mobile Outreach Clinic], for us, is that healthcare isn’t really a privilege. It’s more of a right for all patients. All the things that we do are at no charge to them.

Can you describe what people can expect if they come here for services?

We run similar to a clinic itself. They usually call our office to make an appointment. When they come for their clinic visit, we have some screening questions that’s usually done by a care coordinator — someone who’s an undergrad, pre-professional health student who wants to learn how to do it.

The care coordinator asks general questions. Usually social determinants of health is one of the biggest things we ask, in terms of, hey, are you aware of these resources, if they aren’t lacking any food or they need shelter, if they don’t feel safe at home. We usually partner with a lot of community projects or programs here that help get them the service that they need.

After they’re roomed, they go through the whole course of taking a medical history, doing a physical exam, and then in collaboration with an on-staff medical provider, we come up with an assessment and plan.

So it’s giving back to the community, but it’s also giving an opportunity to be a teaching environment for the young professionals that potentially will become our future health care providers.

Why did you choose to work here?

When I treat patients here, I have to think with more of a narrow lens because you know, it would be OK for me to prescribe all these lab results, give them all these medications, but then I never really think about the barriers that would come into play. Like maybe they don’t have transportation, maybe they don’t have the money to do it. So I’m trying to make what little I have into something so much bigger.

And I think the satisfaction of actually being able to treat patients and get their healthcare needs in a short turnaround, or with so little, is really gratifying. They’re probably some of the most grateful patients, you know, that you deal with.

And I think being able to teach students and see all the undergrad students who want to be healthcare providers, and seeing the passion that they have, it brings me a lot of joy and satisfaction in what I do.

Has anything surprised you since you started working with this clinic?

A part of my duties is actually something called street medicine, which is kind of taking it to the next level. Instead of going on a bus we’re on the feet, basically on our toes, walking around the community of Gainesville and looking for homeless people that need access to food or medications or treatment.

We have to go into woods to find tents. Sometimes patients that can’t go into GRACE Marketplace or St. Francis House, they live out in the woods. Being able to see them and actually take care of their healthcare needs was pretty eye opening, because you would never expect someone to live behind, like, a grocery store, in a highway intersection, where there’s a little camp of woods somewhere.

It’s part of the medical students’ curriculum here, when they’re on their family medicine rotation, and even the PA students too. They get to see this experience and realize, you know, medicine is not what you see outside of a clinic visit room, it’s actually everything around you. It’s what you eat, it’s where you live. Everything plays into how we take care of ourselves and how we treat them.

You must have learned so much about our community through doing this.

Yeah, I think so too. It also makes this kind of vulnerable population, that sometimes don’t want to seek health care, have a sense of normalcy. It’s more a part of their routine to be able to see a primary care provider and take care of their health. And sometimes it’s actually empowering to them to take care of their life through just educating them and treating their needs and making sure they have someone they can talk to.

Are there any meaningful interactions that have stuck with you from your time here?

I’ve seen a lot of people who had Type 2 diabetes, on a bunch of medications, insulin and everything like that. And then just because they’re informed, and they had good conversations with someone, and they felt like their healthcare provider listened to their needs and also worked with them to have a good plan, they will be able to reverse their diabetes, you know, lose a lot of weight where they can get off their medications. And now they’re off to a better place.

What do you want the public to know about the work you do?

Healthcare is not a privilege, it’s a right for everyone. We want to make sure people see that and they don’t have to be fearful of what they have. I want to hopefully create a good environment for not only students to learn but also have the connections and continuity of care for patients where [the patients] feel safe and they feel like their voices are being heard, especially in a time where health care is so important.

About Katie Hyson

Katie Hyson is a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News covering racial and rural inequities in East Gainesville and north central Florida. She can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org. Click here to learn how you can support her reporting.

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