The UCLA Mobile Clinic is a free medical clinic for the homeless that operates in two locations, in West Hollywood and in Santa Monica. The clinic’s staff of medical students, primarily in their first year, work toward improving the health of this very vulnerable population by diagnosing and treating acute illnesses as well as chronic medical conditions.
This year I was fortunate enough to learn about the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project through one of the third-year medical students on rotation in anesthesiology. I had been looking for opportunities to volunteer as a physician and work with medical students, and this seemed to be a perfect fit. I have since been spending one Saturday per month at the Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica, which is an extremely rewarding experience.
Under the supervision of rotating volunteer attending physicians like me, the medical students review the patient’s medical history and perform physical examinations. Once a diagnosis is made, and is confirmed by the attending physician, the students obtain any necessary medications from the Mobile Clinic's supply. If the medication isn’t in stock, the students make a run to the local pharmacy to pick it up for the patient.
Through practicing physical examination techniques, and diagnosing common medical conditions such as hypertension, respiratory illnesses, and a host of skin infections, these students gain hands-on experience that will assist them in their future careers as physicians. At the same time, they are performing an invaluable service for the homeless community of Los Angeles.
A team of undergraduate case workers and volunteer social workers help make referrals for our patients to local homeless shelters, dental clinics, drug treatment centers, clinics for follow-up healthcare, and a multitude of other services. Everyone's goal is to get these homeless patients integrated back into healthcare and social services systems, from which many of them have been separated — voluntarily or involuntarily — for years.
I would encourage anyone in our department to volunteer at this or a similar organization, though we clearly are not primary care physicians. My training as an anesthesiologist has been beneficial on more than one occasion in cases of acute, severe, or trauma-related medical issues. After all, we interact with a wide range of specialties every day!
For instance, one patient presented with a three-week history of a swollen, painful left hand after a night of drinking when he lost his temper and punched a wall. The pain had grown acutely worse over the past 48 hours, and he was now experiencing paresthesias. On exam, his hand was profoundly edematous and pulses could not be palpated. I had spent enough time in the orthopedic operating rooms to recognize impending compartment syndrome. We gave the patient an Uber voucher and sent him straight to the nearest emergency department.
Even in more basic outpatient clinical situations, our foundation of medical training as physician anesthesiologists is an excellent background – and more than adequate preparation – for urgent patient care and for the instruction of first-year medical students. Giving my time to the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project has been a very gratifying experience, and it provides me with an opportunity to serve a community that happens to be right in our backyard.