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Perelman School of Medicine School Students Put New Skills Into Action Serving West Philadelphia Community

First row: Jessica Zha, Lova Sun, Pandora Chua, Nancy Aitcheson Second row: Vishal Arora, Ben Ranard, John E. Nawn, Alex Rosen


Service to the community goes hand-in-hand with becoming a practicing physician, and it shines through the medical clinic operated by Perelman School of Medicine students at the University City Hospitality Coalition (UCHC).

 The UCHC started in October 1984, after a homeless man, Stanley Biddle, froze to death while asleep near 38th street. Offering one weekly meal at the group’s start, this non-profit organization has grown into a much larger force for good in West Philadelphia, offering a daily meal (except Sundays during Passover) and many other critical services for homeless or low-income community members.

Many of those critical services are delivered by a medical clinic staffed by students from the School of Medicine and other Penn students. The clinic offers various screenings, vitamins, information on social services, and more on Wednesday nights. A legal clinic and dental clinic is also available many Wednesdays. A new $1,500 grant from Penn Medicine CAREs, will further support their work, such as the implementation of an electronic medical records system and a new vaccine program.  

Running solely on donations of time and money, the resourceful group provides a wide range of services with limited financial support. Current support comes from the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Penn Medicine CAREs, and time and energy donated by pharmacists, attending physicians and students. An annual glove sale to first year students for anatomy courses generates some funds for the group.

Everyone receiving meals at UCHC can play an instrumental role as organization members; they elect officers and help make decisions at bi-annual meetings.

The UCHC starts many meals by announcing job opportunities, training programs, and available resume services.  The group’s mailbox serves as a mailing address for many visitors. An outreach social worker works to place visitors in local shelters and offers information on drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs and mental health programs.       

Volunteers make the organization tick.  For example, the President of the medical clinic, a position which rotates monthly, runs board meetings and directs the flow of clinics. Penn medical students play particularly key roles: Alex Rosen serves as the public relations co-coordinator, Jessica Zha is the hypertension, diabetes and nutrition coordinator, Pandora Chua is the treasurer/board transition coordinator, and Nancy Aitcheson manages the medical education component of the group. Vishal Arora, pre-med coordinator, helps manage Penn undergraduate and Post-Baccalaureate students who assist with vitamins, social services, and screenings. Attending physicians, a dermatology resident, and pharmacists also pitch in to help and oversee care in the clinic.

At a recent clinic this month, the group’s systematic and caring approach was on display even before the clinic opened. In just minutes, the group set up stations in a small auditorium – one to take blood pressure and blood sugar levels at a blood glucose table, a second for monthly HIV testing, another for social service referrals and other public benefits information, and others for different services. The experience of Penn Medicine faculty leaders cement the services provided by the organization.

“I interact with a lot of people, but nothing is more valuable than the 90 minutes I spend with our students, our pharmacists, and taking care of our people in West Philadelphia,” said Richard Shannon, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine. Shannon was volunteering his time that night, caring for patients and supporting the invaluable learning experience for the students.

During that evening’s clinic, Rosen, who was serving his turn as president for that month, saw the patients first, documented their chief complaint, and then assigned other students to find out the patient’s history.

During the clinic, the students responded to a variety of health concerns, including hypertension, diabetes, respiratory illness (such as asthma), joint complaints, rashes, allergies, and more. For many patients who attend the clinic, it’s their only way to get routine health care to identify chronic conditions, since they are often uninsured or underinsured. More than one in seven Philadelphia residents lacks any public or private health insurance, according to Public Health Management Corporation's 2008 Southeastern Pennsylvania Household Health Survey.  

“The first year and a half of medical school is mostly classroom-based, and I’m anxious to see patients and get that clinical component as well,” said Rosen. “This is great because now every week I see why I’m doing this and get that patient contact. It’s also good educational experience. I’ve taken a lot of patient histories and I think that will give me helpful experience that will translate well when I do my clinical rotations.”

John Nawn, another Penn Medicine student, who serves as outreach coordinator for the clinic, began volunteering at the UCHC soup kitchen as an undergraduate student at Villanova. “One of the reasons I applied to Penn was this clinic,” Nawn said. “It’s just a fantastic program. The more I learned about the patients and patrons, the more I learned that the community health aspect, filling in the gaps, and doing that kind of acute intervention are key.”

Chua said the clinic played a role in her decision to become a Penn Medicine student.  “One of the things I loved most about Penn and why I wanted to come here was the opportunity to get involved with the community,” said Chua. “UCHC was particularly interesting to me because it is the free clinic in Philadelphia that is the most student-owned and run.” 

William H. Matthai, Jr. MD, FACC, Physician and Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine has been the group’s professional advisor for years, but echoes Chua’s sentiments and says his role is limited. “The clinic is truly student run,” said Matthai. “There is an executive board which sets the agenda and priorities for the clinic.  I provide advice and a bit of historical perspective.  The students work incredibly hard.”

The student volunteers say they’re gaining valuable experience as both clinicians and communicators, helping patients learn more about how to make wise health decisions.

“As a MS1, we do not have a huge skill set, but we can definitely provide needed services like hypertension screening, counseling, and one on one time to connect,” said Ben Ranard, supplies coordinator and Penn Medicine student. “Sometimes it’s not always easy to access a physician. This is a unique place where if they’re already coming for dinner, they can talk to a physician and get more time than they might get in a physician’s office. We’re here to encourage healthy behaviors and address questions about what might be going on.”

Although beneficial for student learning, the clinic most of all exemplifies the importance of service to others.

“While the history and physical skills and introductory medical practices are helpful to the students,” Matthai says, “I think the clinic, with many of the other opportunities provided at Penn, remind the students of the obligation to serve, and reinforce a commitment to help those whom may not be able to help themselves.”

About Penn Medicine CAREs

Continuing its commitment to underserved communities, Penn Medicine established the CAREs Foundation Grant Program in January 2012 to support and recognize faculty, student, and/or staff efforts to improve the health of the community and increase volunteerism in community-based programs. These programs have addressed health disparities, provided care to seniors, administered free medical care to homeless in Philadelphia, helped fund medical care for uninsured and underinsured, and more.

Each quarter, the Foundation awards grants of up to $2000 per project to community and hospital-based programs on behalf of the employee(s) or Perelman School of Medicine student(s) who volunteer their time to support the program. The funding is eligible for expenses related to initiatives in community health improvement services, health professions education, subsidized health services, cash and in-kind contributions, or community building activities.

For more information and apply, please visit and read about the program at the Penn Medicine News blog.

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