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Student-run VCU CARES Clinic provides free physical therapy to the uninsured and underinsured

Student-run VCU CARES Clinic provides free physical therapy to the uninsured and underinsured

Kristie Carpenter believes everyone deserves health care.

“In underserved populations, I think it’s important to focus on reducing barriers to health care,” she said.

In Richmond, if a person is denied health care because they cannot afford it, there aren’t many safety nets that can offer an alternative. Students from the Virginia Commonwealth University Doctor of Physical Therapy Class of 2017 sought to fill that void.

In July 2016, physical therapy students created the Community Accessible Rehabilitative Services Clinic at VCU, for which they primarily volunteer. The clinic provides free compassionate, state-of-the-art physical therapy services to uninsured and underinsured people in the Richmond area, and at the same time champions opportunities for professional service and education between VCU physical therapy students and licensed physical therapists.

Sixteen students make up the clinic board, which manages operations, and 66 students volunteered in the first year. About six patients visit the clinic per week for conditions such as arthritis, knee pain, sports injuries and back and neck pain.

Licensed physical therapist Chris Fosdick (right), a community volunteer, meets with VCU physical therapy students Greg Delano (left) and Matthew Ward (center) to discuss a plan for an upcoming appointment with a patient.
Licensed physical therapist Chris Fosdick (right), a community volunteer, meets with VCU physical therapy students Greg Delano (left) and Matthew Ward (center) to discuss a plan for an upcoming appointment with a patient.

Carpenter, who is president of VCU CARES and a member of the Class of 2019, has always had a great passion for health, particularly where she can help people directly.

“I initially wanted to conduct medical research, but after a few years of following that path professionally, I was no longer finding the job satisfaction that I had hoped for,” she said. “I decided that I needed direct patient interaction to achieve the satisfaction that I was looking for.”

Michelle Flewitt, a second-year physical therapy doctoral student and a patient advocate at the clinic, realizes what her time means to people who clearly need the help.

“Since starting my work as a patient advocate, it has become very evident to me that there is a huge need for physical therapy among the uninsured and low-income population of Richmond,” she said. “I think what compels me to volunteer is the knowledge that small acts can have meaningful effects.”

The clinic accepts uninsured patients by referral from The Center for Healthy Hearts, Health Brigade and CrossOver Healthcare Ministry.

“I personally had the opportunity to work with a patient who had been dealing with back pain for years following the birth of her children,” Carpenter said. “After seeing us for several appointments, she is now pain free.”

Delano and Ward work with a patient who has a spinal cord injury as Fosdick offers guidance and suggestions.
Delano and Ward work with a patient who has a spinal cord injury as Fosdick offers guidance and suggestions.

Ultimately, the clinic hopes to eliminate the middle man and accept even more patients from beyond the three partnerships it has now.

“We are in the process of developing our own financial screening process so that we can accept patients from additional referral sources,” Carpenter said. “Having to obtain a referral is a barrier for patients.”

While helping the underprivileged, the students practice their skills working alongside licensed physical therapists, who provide mentorship.

“I think what is special about our clinic is that we have student physical therapists working alongside the licensed physical therapists to treat the patients,” Flewitt said. “Additionally, I think the patients feel a sense of helping as well, because they are providing a way for student physical therapists to practice in a safe and supervised setting.”

Shawne Soper, assistant professor and assistant director of clinical education in the School of Allied Health Professions’ Physical Therapy Program, and Sheryl Finucane, Ph.D., assistant professor and coordinator of graduate education in the Physical Therapy Program, serve as faculty advisers, and other faculty and licensed physical therapists from the community periodically volunteer as supervising clinicians.

Katherine Lomaka, a second-year student and volunteer therapist at VCU CARES, sees how the advisers, faculty and licensed physicians foster a learning environment.

“If I get stuck during a patient interview or am not sure what sort of exercise will help strengthen a weakened muscle in a patient, the supervising PT is there for me,” she said. “There is no judgment, there is no failing grade.”

The clinic is a true community effort. University of Richmond undergraduate students and locals volunteer as interpreters for Spanish-speaking patients, and VCU undergraduate students from the Monroe Park Campus serve as receptionists.

Delano provides assistance as a patient practices walking down a hallway in the clinic.
Delano provides assistance as a patient practices walking down a hallway in the clinic.

The student-run clinic, which solely relies on volunteers and donations to keep operating, has been successful in providing comfort for underprivileged patients.

“Many of our patients are incredibly grateful for the treatment, especially when it provides relief of the pain or symptoms they’ve been feeling for a number of years,” Flewitt said. “Some have just ‘put up with it’ for so long because they had no way of accessing physical therapy, so it’s very rewarding to hear that our services have provided some relief at last.”

Since its creation a little more than a year ago, VCU CARES has continued to evolve and is fulfilling its mission to improve quality of life for its patients, according to Lomaka.

“Though the CARES clinic is young in its work, we are already starting to make waves and see an impact in our community,” Lomaka said. “VCU has made it possible to transform our society to optimize movement with the goal of improving the human experience.”