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Building bridges

Hillsborough County is home to more than 30 clinics that offer some form of free health care, but a clinic on campus is the only one where the patients put their primary health care in the hands of students rather than doctors.

The Building Relationships and Initiatives Dedicated to Gaining Equality Clinic is the only student-run clinic in Tampa that offers free medical services to the “underserved and underrepresented” while also offering a learning experience for USF medical students.

Located in the Carol and Frank Morsani Center, the clinic began as an idea of four medical students in 2007. Since its inception, the clinic has steadily offered services to about 12 qualifying patients a week.

Patients who take advantage of BRIDGE’s services must live in the zip codes of 33612 or 33613, not qualify for Medicaid and make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

A learning opportunity

Colin Sullivan, a student director at BRIDGE, began volunteering at the clinic during his first year of medical school.

“I first heard about BRIDGE probably when I was applying to medical school,” Sullivan said. “And then I started as a first year and I tried to just volunteer as much as I could, but it’s very popular and it’s hard to get in there your first year.”

Now in his fourth year as a medical student, Sullivan is at BRIDGE every Tuesday for clinic hours. For a medical student, Sullivan said, clinic hours are a chance to both learn and run the show.

“Basically an underclassman gets paired with an upperclassman and they get their patient name and they would go look up the patient, see if they have any new labs, read about their history and then they go in and see the patient together,” he said. “We encourage the underclassmen to run the show, because this is their opportunity to do that more so than when they’re in class or in clinic for school.”

The student doctors then present their assessment to a volunteer attending physician from USF or the Tampa community and the team generates a plan on how to treat the patient.

“The patient can also be seen by public health if they want to be tested for HIV, by physical therapy if they have a complaint related to that, and by pharmacy if they have a lot of medications if they have something like that,” Sullivan said.

The BRIDGE clinic takes in 150 to 200 student volunteers a year. Sullivan said the experience that these volunteers gain gives them valuable knowledge for the future and allows them to give back to their community at the same time.

“I think that most medical students are involved with medicine because they want to give back to the community,” Sullivan said. “I can’t think of a more perfect way to do that.”

Finding funding

One of the goals of Kaitlin Holdstein, a student director of the clinic, is to build a more sustainable resource network for its patients, allowing easier access to expensive or hard-to-come-by services. Working toward this goal, the clinic was able to receive a colon cancer-screening grant, which has allowed it to start a colonoscopy program.

“Right now, we can’t get patients colonoscopies, but we’ve been able to negotiate with the G.I. department to set a base rate so our patients can get a colonoscopy for a very reduced rate, and then the money from this grant will help fund those,” Holdstein said.

BRIDGE’s focus is on primary care, so screenings and tests are used to help doctors catch serious problems early on. Medical guidelines suggest that everyone get a colonoscopy at age 50 or earlier, depending on risk factors, Sullivan said.

Because the clinic doesn’t charge patients for the majority of its services, BRIDGE relies on volunteers from the medical community in and around USF as well as donations from organizations such as USF Health, the Florida Department of Health and the University Area Community Development Corporation, among others. The clinic also relies on the local medical community to provide free or low-cost procedures that it isn’t capable of offering.

“Some of the other free clinics in the area have doctors that do different things or have access to different services, so on a case-by-case basis, we’ll refer them there,” Holdstein said. “In turn, we get patients from other clinics who know we have access to certain specialists or we have access to certain tests. So, it’s kind of always an influx relationship.”

BRIDGE staff recently decided to make its talent show an annual event after its most recent talent show raised $26,000. Last week, BRIDGE also received a $1,000 donation from the University Area Community Development Corporation, and Shreyas – An Expression of Dance hosted a benefit ballet for the clinic.12