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Students offer free medical services to community members in need

The “University area” has a double meaning in Tampa. Often associated with USF students, it is also one of Tampa’s poorest areas, known to some as “Suitcase City.” Apart from a shared geographical area, these separate populations have little to no bond.

But one clinic is hoping to bring the two groups closer together by providing medical care to low-income area residents.

Building Relationships and Initiatives Dedicated to Gaining Equality (BRIDGE), a health care clinic run by student volunteers, offers free multi-disciplinary medical assistance to people who do not qualify for federal or state medical care.

“This is a poor community. We offer them resources when we can. We help them address everything from financial problems to malnutrition. I believe in helping people know they can do this by themselves,” said Laura Cadavid, a volunteer at BRIDGE who is majoring in social work. 

“Many of the programs, like dental and eye, have been cut because of the budgets, but we’re doing everything we can to help.”

The clinic, which is open every Tuesday, provides everything from primary care to care for chronic illness. In addition to providing medical care and social work, students refer patients to programs that can further assist them with services such as mental health and food banks.

To qualify for care at BRIDGE, patients’ annual income must be below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is $44,100 for a family of four. Patients’ residency is also considered because of the need for service in the immediate University area.

Many of the patients seen weekly at BRIDGE benefit from the multi-disciplinary nature of the services provided. Some patients also need services provided in their native language, which students can often provide.

“This community is falling in the health care gap,” said Fariha Esmail, a medical student who volunteers at the clinic. “This is the reason I went into medicine — to help people.”

On the last Tuesday of each month, the clinic offers gynecological services and preventative care to women in the area. BRIDGE hopes to expand its specialty services soon and is looking into bringing in a cardiologist and neurologist to provide free care.

“We are giving these people hope for the future just because they know that the students care,” Cadavid said. “They know we’re not just out to make a paycheck — we’re genuine.”

BRIDGE, which opened in October 2007, has seen a recent increase in patients. Cadavid believes this is a result of both the worsening economy and new patients’ referrals from friends and health fairs.

Aaron Jaworek, a medical student and volunteer at BRIDGE, said he feels the program is not only an asset to the community but an excellent resource for medical students.

“This clinic provides medical students a wealth of knowledge and experience in many topics that are rarely covered or experienced within the curriculum at USF,” he said. “This includes increasing awareness of health disparities, cultural competence and practicing using an interpreter.”

In addition to practical applications, Jaworek said he has learned how to provide more efficient health care for low-income patients.

“We learn ways to reduce health care costs for the provider and the patient, how to serve as the primary provider for a patient,” he said. “They come to BRIDGE because it is truly the only resource they have to obtain basic health care needs aside from the ER.”

Students at BRIDGE said they want to expand the clinic, and hope to one day include the College of Public Health and College of Nursing to provide even more services.