July 17, 2008 — Volunteers from the University of Virginia Health System are preparing for a medical relief effort during which they will race the clock to provide desperately needed services to thousands of Americans who are sick, suffering and have limited or no access to ongoing health care.
A record 200 doctors, nurses, medical and nursing students, lab technicians, pharmacists, social workers and general volunteers from U.Va. will travel to the Kentucky-Virginia Fairgrounds to work at the ninth annual Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise, Va. from July 25 to 27. During its 30 hours of operation, the clinic will provide dental, eye, hearing and other medical care on a first-come, first-served basis to people who are uninsured, underinsured, unemployed or cannot afford to pay.
"Many of us return year after year, because this event touches our hearts and reminds us of why we went into medicine to begin with," said Dr. Scott Syverud, an emergency physician at U.Va. who serves as medical director for the clinic. "It's almost unbelievable that so many people have so few health care options, and we want to do all we can to help them."
When the first Remote Area Medical Clinic opened in Wise nine summers ago, organizers saw it as a stopgap measure, a temporary solution to a health care shortage expected to be addressed within a few years. Little did they suspect that, year after year, the event would draw record crowds and quickly grow into the largest mobile free health care clinic in the nation.
At the clinic, patients will primarily be the working poor — those who make too much to qualify for government aid, yet too little to cover costly services. Most reside in the remote coal-mining areas of southwest Virginia and in neighboring sections of Kentucky and Tennessee, places where medical resources are stretched thin or non-existent. Attending the clinic may be the only time many will see a doctor all year, prompting them to sleep in cars and line up before dawn to ensure they receive care. Although the clinic strives to treat more people each year, attendance invariably exceeds capacity and many must be turned away.
During its 2 1/2 of operation last year, the Wise clinic set new records for volunteer hours and patient encounters. Some 1,377 volunteers worked 20,000 hours to provide $1.36 million in services. In all, 2,506 patients received 8,401 procedures.
The clinic is expected to continue its record-setting tradition this year. Its hours will be from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, July 25 and 26, and from 6 a.m. to noon on Sunday, July 27.
U.Va. has been participating in the Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise since 2001 and donates about a ton and a half of supplies each year. In addition to providing the largest group of medical volunteers, the U.Va. Health System has steadily expanded its services at the clinic. In 2007, 161 U.Va. volunteers provided over 7,100 services to 1,600 patients — a 40 percent increase from the previous year. In all, U.Va. donated $276,000 in manpower and supplies.
Last year, U.Va. added four endocrinologists to its volunteer team to address the prevalence of thyroid disease and other hormonal issues in the region; it also took new steps to facilitate follow-up care by assigning medical record numbers to each patient. Now, doctors on the CareCast network can easily access electronic medical records when treating patients afterward.
U.Va.'s 2008 clinical operations will again include an on-site lab, a fully stocked pharmacy and a mobile medical records office. Service offerings will include internal medicine, gynecology, cardiology, nephrology, gastroenterology, geriatrics, neurology, ultrasound, endocrinology and ear, nose and throat services. Patients will be given Pap tests, hearing exams and hearing aids, digital mammograms, screenings for diabetes, HIV, hypertension and colon cancer and — for the first time — pneumonia vaccinations. Back in Charlottesville, medical specialists will be on call for consultations over the Health System's telemedicine network.
The clinic is made possible by the Remote Area Medical Corps, a nonprofit, volunteer relief organization based in Knoxville, Tenn. The Health Wagon, a no-fee mobile health clinic in Clinchco, Va., which provided the impetus for the first Wise clinic, continues to manage its overall coordination. Numerous civic groups, schools, churches, businesses and individuals also participate.