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September 2008 Issue

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Family Medicine Physicians Raise Awareness, Provide Health Care for Tristate Homeless

By Katie Pence
Published September 2008

Fountain Square boomed with music on Aug. 14, serving as a soundtrack for Nancy Elder and Kate Bennett’s true mission.

The two, dressed identically in teal shirts, chatted with the lunch crowd passing by the Health Care for the Homeless van, but lunch was the farthest thing from their mind.

Elder, associate professor in UC’s department of family medicine, and Bennett, chief executive officer of the Cincinnati Health Network (CHN), were working together with a number of other volunteers to raise awareness of their efforts and gather donations.

The week of Aug. 11 was designated National Health Center Week, and as part of the celebration, which also included National Health Care for the Homeless Day, the medical team gave tours of the van and handed out brochures to educate the public about the homeless population in Cincinnati.

In addition, a “menu” was presented to passersby from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. which encouraged people to donate to the cause.

“Instead of telling people to put money in a basket, we created a menu of donation options,” says Bennett. “For example, a person could buy a tuberculosis shot for $5, a child’s immunization for $10, a women’s health visit for $50 and so on. It personalized things a bit more and helped to convey that health care can often be the bridge into self-sufficiency for some of our patients. Plus, I think people like to know what they are paying for.”

This was the first event of its kind for the project.

UC has been part of the Health Care for the Homeless project through the CHN for about five years. Bennett says she contracts doctors from the department of family medicine to work on the medical van.

“I get very emotional when I think about our docs,” Bennett says. “They are the kindest, most gentle folks. Their efforts come from deep in their hearts, and they manage to make every single patient feel special.”

Bennett says the UC crew consisting mostly of Elder, Susan Montauk, MD, Joe Kiesler, MD, and Jerry Friemoth, MD, not only treat the ailments of the body but also those of the heart.

“We have patients with cancer, pneumonia and diabetes, and they do everything in their ability to help while still taking into consideration the hurdles people encounter on a daily basis,” she says. “They do their jobs, and they do them with grace.”

Elder is the clinical leader of the van.

“The van goes out Monday through Friday and visits a dozen different shelters and soup kitchens throughout Greater Cincinnati,” Elder says.

“We reassess our stopping locations each year to find the optimal places to interact with the homeless community.”

Elder says the daily team consists of one or two physicians, two medical assistants, a part-time nursing supervisor and a patient advocate from the CHN.

The van is also used to train medical students and residents who learn necessary skills in dealing with these special populations. She says working on the medical van is one of the most fulfilling experiences in her role as a physician.

“I do research, and I teach medical students and residents, but this is the most important and rewarding work I do,” she says. “Many people have an image of what homelessness is: a panhandler at the side of the road, a drug dealer or a bum. The homeless are such a diverse group of people—some of whom are mentally ill and unable to sustain themselves or those who have no social support. We help them get better, get back on their feet and move on to better lives.”

Besides medical care, the Health Care for the Homeless program also allows patients to seek assistance for substance abuse, prostitution or other lifestyle issues that prevent them from living a normal, successful life. Bennett says these new avenues are partly why the program has grown over the years.

“We began in 1988 when we got our first grant,” she says. “Since then, we’ve been able to provide medical care annually to about 7,000 homeless people in this area, which has remained fairly consistent. However, we have increased the help we can provide in the areas of dental, mental health and alcohol and drug addiction, among others.”

Elder says that helping patients deal with their chronic health problems and teaching them how to turn their lives around ensures positive results.

And she’s seen proof.

“I was in a Kroger in Blue Ash near my home one evening, and this woman called out to me,” she recounts. “I didn’t remember her at first, but then she told me I used to see her on the medical van. She told me she now has a job and a house in Reading. When you run into someone like this who has made it, it means a lot.
“It means that we are making a difference.”

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