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Cornell Med Students Become Party Planners to Expand Free Clinic

By Amy Zimmer | February 3, 2012 9:37am
The student-led Weill Cornell Community Clinic is planning to add another night to its roster. The clinic offers free healthcare to uninsured, low-income New Yorkers.
The student-led Weill Cornell Community Clinic is planning to add another night to its roster. The clinic offers free healthcare to uninsured, low-income New Yorkers.
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Weill Cornell Medical Center

MANHATTAN — When doctors at Weill Cornell Internal Medical Associates close up for the night each Monday, a group of med students takes over, running an after-hours free health clinic for uninsured, low-income New Yorkers.

The student-led Weill Cornell Community Clinic, which offers primary and preventive care — and has an average four-week wait time for appointments — is planning to double its hours. But with the pool of available grant money shrinking, students have turned to throwing their own benefit parties to raise needed funds.

"Proceeds from this benefit will pay for nearly six months of patient care," Megan Riddle, the clinic's co-director and a fourth-year MD-PhD student, said after their first benefit last week. "That makes a big difference — both in the lives of our patients and in the lives of students who learn about the challenges of caring for the uninsured by volunteering with the clinic."

Although the medical school provides technical assistance, it does not fund the roughly $45,000 per year program, and students must submit their own grants and raise funds to operate it.

Over the next six months the clinic hopes to add another night of service at 505 East 70th St., at York Avenue, on Wednesday evenings from 5 to 8 p.m., said Riddle.

"Without a Safety Net," as the Jan. 27 event held at the Astor Center in NoHo was called, sold out in advance and brought in $25,000 — far exceeding the $5,000 the students thought they'd raise.

The clinic, which first opened its doors in 2006, gives future doctors the opportunity to leave the classroom for hands-on clinical experience — under the supervision of an attending physician — and gives low-income residents access to primary and preventive care. The students are now eager to expand the program and recently began doing test runs on Wednesday nights once a month.

"In many cases this is the first opportunity for students to get involved with patient care," Riddle said. "It gives the students exposure to all sorts of medical issues and at the same time, the patients are getting quality medical care."

While Riddle said the clinic would continue submitting grants, which the school helps with, hosting the benefit had an added advantage: spreading awareness of the students' work.

"The clinic is often our patients’ only option for affordable health care when they have nowhere to turn," said Ximena Levander, co-director and a fourth-year med student.

The clinic also offers mental health and a women's health services. The students handle roughly 350 patient visits a year for more than 100 individuals, Riddle said. 

Many of the patients are middle-aged New Yorkers who have suddenly found themselves unemployed and uninsured, Riddle said. Some of the patients are young New Yorkers who have recently come off their parents' insurance but don't yet have jobs that cover their own health care.  

They all must be New York City residents with no insurance coverage and earn less than 400 percent of the federal income poverty level, which is $43,320 a year for an individual or $88,200 for a family of four, according to the clinic's website.

"There is no such thing as a free clinic," said Dr. Patricia Yarberry-Allen, a faculty advisory board member and the physician for the community clinic's women's health section, who helped the students plan the benefit. "We needed to create an annual fundraising event to support the clinic’s mission. Now WCCC has a template for a successful annual event."