The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s student-run free community clinic system, MEDiC, was poised to enter its 30th year in 2021 reflecting on its past. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers and students to reimagine its future.
Established in 1991, MEDiC operates several free health clinics in the Madison area for medically underserved populations while also offering a chance for students studying to be doctors, physician assistants, physical therapists, pharmacists or nurses to put knowledge into practice.
In March 2020, all the clinic system’s locations were closed temporarily due to personal protective equipment shortages and national restrictions on health professional students seeing patients early in the pandemic. The Southside Clinic space needed to shut down permanently as the primary care clinic providing the location could no longer offer the space to MEDiC, according to Meghan Zander, second-year medical student and MEDiC organizer.
“We had to shut down abruptly and weren’t able to be there for the community during a very hard time, but last year’s student and interprofessional team worked to establish telemedicine services which we were able to offer to patients in June of 2020,” she said. “It was unfortunate to have to shut down but now we have the infrastructure to serve our patients if anything like this happens again.”
In July 2020, UW Health stepped in to provide space at its 1102 S. Park St. building. The goal was to help reestablish access to care on the south side of Madison. By March 2021, MEDiC had fully moved into the new space.
“It was a natural fit,” said Pete Newcomer, MD, chief clinical officer, UW Health, who volunteered with MEDiC during his time as a medical student. “I know from personal experience how important this opportunity is for medical students, and how vital it is to the patients they serve.”
The clinic space wasn’t the only change brought on in this turbulent 30th year of existence, Zander said.
In March 2021, MEDiC students began seeing patients in person again, but by appointment. Previously, patients came to clinic locations on drop-in basis.
In-person appointments proved invaluable by allowing MEDiC students to both assess a wider range of concerns than they had been able to address previously and provided an opportunity to build trust and connect with patients after the pandemic-induced pause in services, Zander said.
“It allows us to provide quality care and connect people to primary care providers to take care of their chronic conditions,” she said.
The students still see patients via telehealth, and other MEDiC clinics serve people in facilities that offer shelter or other services, such as the Salvation Army family and women’s shelter. In July 2021, UW Health granted the students permanent use of the 1102 S. Park St. space and helped secure an increased number of referral appointments at Access Community Health Centers.
“When I think about the challenges of reopening MEDiC's Southside Clinic during the pandemic, I'm totally in awe of the creativity and dedication of our student and provider volunteers,” said Kristi Jones, community services programs director, UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “Their tenacity, combined with clinic space generously provided by UW Health, has made reopening not only possible but successful.”