Community Health Centers: Compassion, Commitment and Cutting-edge Medicine – Even in a Pandemic

You get what you pay for. Right? Not necessarily.

Which is great news for the 30 million Americans who rely on free or low-cost community health centers. Low-income populations suffer disproportionately from chronic disease, yet rarely have sufficient medical insurance. They are typically priced out of private-pay services.

Every August is National Health Care Center Week in August, we we celebrate more than 10,000 community health clinics across the country that provide affordable treatment to the underserved. Clinics are usually funded by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). That means budgets are tight.

Still, clinics find ingenious the ways to innovate while still pinching pennies – even when almost devastated by a pandemic.

Take one of our customers - Order of Malta Clinic in Oakland, California, for example. Absolutely free for over a decade, virtually anyone has been able to get top-quality medical care at no cost at the Order of Malta Clinic. Yes, you read that right. Free. No copay. No questions. This is possible because 50 dedicated staff members volunteer their time. A lay group of the Catholic Church, the clinic is the only source of medical care for thousands of uninsured or underinsured patients.

When COVID hit, the clinic had to rethink its entire game plan. A large percentage of patients had chronic diseases and needed to be seen on a regular basis. Conditions like diabetes didn’t go away just because a pandemic was raging. But with strict shelter-in-place mandates, neither providers nor patients could come for in-person visits. For someone dependent on insulin or hypertension meds, the situation could be life-threatening.

The only answer was telehealth. How could a low-budget group afford a sophisticated system that would be HIPAA compliant? In fact, even the well-funded facilities in town were scrambling to find solutions.

Early Innovators

Fortunately, the Order of Malta Clinic had long prided itself on staying at the forefront of medical advances. It had recently adopted a modern electronic health record system, Kareo, to replace its antiquated paper-based system. And Kareo just happened to come with built-in telehealth capabilities. All the clinic needed to do was set it in motion.

“We adopted Kareo Telehealth at warp speed, and are currently conducting all patient interactions virtually,” says Anne Brussok, office manager of the clinic. “Thanks to Kareo, our doctors were able to switch to phone or video consultations right away. With records stored digitally in the Kareo database, doctors working remotely can view patient histories just as if they are in the office. It’s also easy for them to order lab tests or prescriptions electronically through Kareo while off-site.

We never could have done all this with our old paper-dependent system. We would have simply ground to a halt.”

Turning on a Dime

Most community health centers around the country did their best to adapt quickly to pandemic needs, even if they didn’t have a ready-made solution like the Order of Malta Clinic. They worked diligently to implement telehealth systems. When possible, they sought to upgrade to electronic record keeping, since caseloads increased so quickly. And they expanded services.

By mid-2020, drive-through and walk-up COVID-19 testing had become commonplace, with nine out of ten community health centers in the U.S. offering COVID tests. More than half of those tested were people of color (source). Thanks to their swift uptake, health centers played a huge part in getting the nation vaccinated.

In February 2021, Federally Qualified Community Health Centers (FQCHCs) started receiving supplies of vaccines as part of the government’s efforts to inoculate populations hardest hit by the virus. The program targeted people living below the poverty line and racial or ethnic minorities – those least likely to have insurance or private medical care. Although not yet meeting the administration’s goals for vaccination rates, the nation is still far ahead of most developed nations.

Heroes in Our Midst

Consider the logistic challenges in setting up services like telehealth, virus testing and widespread vaccination services with little to no ramp-up time, and budgets already stretched thin. Then add in the difficulties caused by COVID-related disruptions. Staff – and clients -- without childcare or reliable public transportation. Widespread fear of entering a medical facility, or any indoor setting, for that matter. Shortages in supplies of all kinds.

How did our country’s health centers pull it off? Good old-fashioned American ingenuity. Stories abound of clinic workers devising their own face shields. Teenagers sewing masks for nurses. Grateful patients bringing pizza to staffers. Retired practitioners volunteering to give shots. Community members becoming volunteer traffic coordinators. In short, the pandemic shows that it really does take a village to make a difference.

In our most recent national crisis, the pandemic, our community health centers became something like village fulcrums -- rallying points for Americans from all walks of life to help their less-fortunate neighbors.

National Health Center Week 2021, August 8-14, is a fitting time to reflect on the essential role of our community clinics and thank them for helping us weather the COVID storm.

If you run a health care center, independent practice or mental health clinic and are looking for a simple, secure, and streamlined telehealth solution that is fully reimbursed by private payers, check out our Kareo Telehealth solution here.

About the Author

Alesa Lightbourne is a prize-winning author, professor and former dean of an international business school. As a freelance writer, her clients have included Fortune...

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