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Service Delivery Innovation Profile

Medical Student–Run Primary Care Clinic Offers Valuable Training to Future Physicians and Enhances Access to Care for Low-Income Patients

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Students from the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School operate Homeless and IndigentPopulation Health Outreach Project (HIPHOP)-Promise Clinic, a free primary care health clinic serving clients of Elijah's Promise, a multifaceted local soup kitchen. After an initial screening, patients receive free comprehensive medical treatment, including education, diagnostic tests, medication, and, as necessary, onsite mental health care and referrals to outside specialists. Students work in four-person teams (consisting of one student from each year of medical school) under the supervision of a volunteer faculty physician preceptor. In addition to offering valuable experience to medical students, the program has enhanced access to care by providing up to approximately 40 low-income individuals with medical care each year that they otherwise likely would not have received. In many cases, this care has led to significant improvements in their health (updated November 2013).

Evidence Rating (What is this?)

Suggestive: The evidence consists primarily of post-implementation data on medical student participation in the program and on the number of patients served, along with anecdotal reports from medical students and physician preceptors who staff the clinic.
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Developing Organizations

Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
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Date First Implemented

The clinic opened to patients in August of 2005.begin pp

Patient Population

Vulnerable Populations > Impoverishedend pp

Problem Addressed

Low-income, vulnerable populations often fail to obtain needed health care and social services via conventional avenues. When they do receive care, it tends to be sporadic and uncoordinated. As a result, they often develop untreated health problems that ultimately require expensive inpatient and/or emergency department (ED) care.
  • Failure to receive needed services: Low-income individuals often cannot access needed health care and social services, for several reasons:
    • Systemic barriers: Disadvantaged individuals often cannot access appropriate health care and social services, primarily due to systemic barriers, such as difficulties finding a job, obtaining housing, or securing health insurance.1 Such problems tend to be most acute among the homeless and those at-risk of homelessness.2
    • Lack of trust: Even when adequate community services and resources are available, many at-risk residents do not trust health care providers and lack the patience or life skills to navigate the health care system. Lack of trust may arise when clients have their social service applications denied, experience discrimination from front-desk staff, or are unable to submit appropriate documentation. In such circumstances, clients often become discouraged and stop seeking services.
    • Lack of coordination: On their own, health care providers serving at-risk residents often lack the systems and workforce needed to coordinate with other organizations to ensure that clients receive needed services. Coordinating care to the homeless and those at-risk of homelessness is especially difficult, because separate agencies, with separate funding streams, tend to serve this population. When homeless individuals do receive care, they typically are treated for a single, acute problem, with little or no attempt to deal with the multiple, ongoing conditions that they face.2
  • Increased likelihood of untreated medical conditions and uncompensated care: At-risk individuals unable to access needed services face an increased risk of untreated chronic health conditions.1 These individuals frequently end up requiring expensive, uncompensated inpatient and ED care. This problem is particularly acute for homeless individuals, for whom the lack of preventive and primary care leads to increased risk of poorly controlled diabetes, heart and lung disease, sexually transmitted diseases, untreated wounds, and a range of psychiatric and substance abuse problems.

What They Did

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Description of the Innovative Activity

Students from the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School operate HIPHOP Promise Clinic, a free primary care health clinic for visitors to a large local soup kitchen. After an initial screening, patients receive comprehensive medical treatment, including education, diagnostic tests, medication, and, as necessary, on-site in-house mental health care and referrals to outside specialists. Students work together in four-person teams under the supervision of a volunteer faculty physician preceptor. Key program elements are described below.
  • Clinic logistics: Promise Clinic operates inside Eric B. Chandler Health Center, a federally qualified health center, as well as a larger health center run by Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and the Eric B. Chandler Community Board Inc. Key logistical details are described below:
    • Convenient location, regular hours: Promise Clinic is located near Elijah's Promise, a large soup kitchen, and close to Catholic Charities-Diocese of Metchen-Ozanam Inn, (Men's Shelter for the Homeless). The homeless men who reside at the shelter eat meals at Elijah's Promise and most are patients of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School/Homeless and Indigent Population Health Outreach Project (HIPHOP)—Promise Clinic. Medical students see patients at the clinic on Thursday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. under the supervision of licensed physicians. In addition, every evening student doctor leaders are available at the center to provide health information and schedule appointments for individuals from the soup kitchen (updated November 2013).
    • Team-based care: The students are organized into four-person teams. Each team consists of one medical student from each year of training, with the third-year student serving as team leader, the fourth-year student as an adviser, and the first- and second-year students as patient advocates and assistants to the team leader. Each team works with one or two patients at a time and with three to five over the course of a year (since patients are drawn from a highly transient population and some drop out of the program). As much as possible, teams stay together from one year to the next, with a first-year student added to the team when the fourth-year student graduates.
    • Volunteer faculty physician preceptor oversight: A physician preceptor from the faculty of the medical school or community is on duty at the clinic each Thursday night to oversee the medical students. Preceptors observe the care provided by students and take an active role in that care. Preceptors also routinely review patient charts with students to ensure high-quality care.
    • Referrals from soup kitchen: The staff social worker at Elijah's Promise asks clients from the soup kitchen about their health and access to medical services. In cases where an individual needs medical care and is not likely to pursue it independently, the social worker explains how the clinic works and encourages him or her to make an appointment for an initial screening. Many clients of the soup kitchen are skeptical about health care and have not seen a doctor in years, so overcoming their doubts often takes multiple conversations.
  • Initial and ongoing care: The clinic offers an initial screening and diagnosis and ongoing care based on a customized care plan, as outlined below:
    • Screening and diagnosis, supported by laboratory and pharmacy services: At the patient's first visit, he or she is introduced to the assigned student medical team and the physician preceptor on duty that evening. The team takes the patient's medical history and performs a physical examination. If indicated, laboratory tests are provided through point of care testing, or collection of samples that are analyzed at an outside reference laboratory. For many patients, this initial screen leads to the diagnosis of one or more chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease. In these instances, the student doctor teams recommend a treatment plan to the physician preceptor, who writes prescriptions accordingly. An onsite pharmacy team (run by students) assists patients in obtaining medication through a prescription voucher system that is coordinated with a local pharmacy. The costs of medication and laboratory services are completely covered by the Promise Clinic (updated November 2013).
    • Team-developed care plan: After the screening, team members develop a long-term care plan for the patient, which they subsequently discuss with a faculty physician preceptor. In many cases, patients' illnesses are already severe, leading the team to implement an intensive plan.
    • Ongoing care: Going forward, the team provides comprehensive primary care for the patient's acute and chronic conditions, with care based on the established plan. Patients typically have one or two clinic appointments each month, with two to four team members present during each appointment. Patients can also call a designated team member any time they have questions.
    • Specialized care: As necessary, the team arranges for the patient to see a specialist. Mental health needs can be addressed onsite by a psychiatry resident who volunteers at the clinic every other Thursday, with oversight from the psychiatry program director, or another faculty member for other specialized needs (e.g., surgery, cancer treatment).
  • Additional educational opportunities for students: In addition to learning as they provide care at the clinic, students regularly attend lectures at the medical school on topics relevant to underserved patients, and they are required to write a short paper about an individual patient's circumstances and progress. Students may also volunteer to serve on any of several student-run committees on clinic-related issues, such as clinic management, specialty care, laboratory, public health, and patient recruitment. Based on an annual application process reviewed by the physician preceptors, some students receive elective credit toward their medical degree for their participation in the program. (The medical school can offer only a limited number of elective credits each year, so not all volunteers receive them.)

Context of the Innovation

The Promise Clinic is one of several projects created by the Homeless and Indigent Population Health Outreach Project (HIPHOP), a student-run organization at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School formed in 1992 to provide community outreach, preventive education, and clinical services to underserved populations in New Brunswick and Middlesex County. During the 1990s and early 2000s, HIPHOP volunteers provided health screenings at Elijah's Promise, which provides emergency food assistance and a range of social services to needy individuals in New Brunswick. HIPHOP volunteers also shadowed Robert Wood Johnson–affiliated physicians during clinical visits with patients at St. John's Health Clinic, which offers health services to low-income and uninsured individuals. Hoping to build on these programs, HIPHOP leaders began in 2004 to explore ways to provide these patients with comprehensive primary care.

Did It Work?

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The program has offered valuable experiences to medical students related to serving low-income populations, enhanced access to care for approximately 40 low-income patients each year, and led to major improvements in the health status of many of those served.
  • Vital experience for medical students: From the clinic's inception in 2005 through 2011, approximately 300 student doctors participated in the program, providing them with their first experience serving low-income patients. Many former students report that clinic work sensitized them to the needs of low-income patients and influenced how they practice medicine and the direction of their careers.
  • Enhanced access to care: Information provided in November 2013 indicates that since the clinic opened in 2005, a total of 433 patients have been recruited to HIPHOP-Promise Clinic, with the majority being seen at the clinic. The number of patients served has consistently grown from 15 in 2005 to 52 in 2012. In the absence of this program, many of these patients likely would not have had access to medical care.
  • Anecdotal reports of health improvements: Although the program's impact on patient outcomes has not been formally evaluated, staff frequently report cases in which the clinic's care enabled patients to avoid imminent health crises. For example, students have detected cancerous tumors that could then be treated and have helped those with extremely high cholesterol and/or uncontrolled diabetes get their condition(s) under control.

Evidence Rating (What is this?)

Suggestive: The evidence consists primarily of post-implementation data on medical student participation in the program and on the number of patients served, along with anecdotal reports from medical students and physician preceptors who staff the clinic.

How They Did It

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Planning and Development Process

Key steps included the following:
  • Initial planning: In 2004, HIPHOP leaders approached the dean of the medical school and the director of Elijah's Promise about setting up a student-run health clinic. Both were amenable to the idea. They also contacted the director of St. John's, who offered to donate space to house the clinic. During subsequent meetings and phone calls, key program details began to take shape, such as the four-person teams, Thursday evening hours, elective credit for some participants, and onsite pharmacy and laboratory services.
  • Recruiting and training student volunteers and faculty: In the months leading up to the planned opening, HIPHOP publicized the clinic on-campus via e-mail and informational meetings. This effort led to the signing up of roughly 60 students who formed 15 medical teams. In addition, several faculty members agreed to serve as physician preceptors. The students attended several training sessions to learn about the clinic's operations and their role in providing care.
  • Expanding and enhancing program: Following the model's initial success, the clinic gradually expanded to allow more student involvement and serve more patients, reaching its present contingent of 190 volunteer students (organized into 40 teams) and 11 physician preceptors. To better address patients' mental health needs, the clinic added the mental health component in 2009 (updated November 2013).

Resources Used and Skills Needed

  • Staffing: Information provided in November 2013 indicates that approximately 190 students and 11 physician preceptors volunteer their time at the clinic. Of these, between 10 and 15 students, 2 faculty advisors, and 1 staff person handle administrative duties along with clinical work. The program's paid staff includes a program coordinator, and a secretary.
  • Costs: Data on program costs are unavailable. Costs tend to be relatively low, since volunteers provide care and the clinic space has been provided through the medical school. Expenses include laboratory tests, medications, and salaries and benefits for paid staff.
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Funding Sources

Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
The program is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the J. Seward Charitable Trust Fund, HIPHOP fundraising events (including an annual 5K Fun Run), and private donations.end fs

Adoption Considerations

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Getting Started with This Innovation

  • Focus on community needs: Consult with community health leaders to identify those who could benefit most from a clinic. Although this program targets low-income (often homeless) adults, the same approach could work with older patients, low-income families, immigrants, or other underserved populations.
  • Start small: Make sure the size of the potential target population is appropriate for the number of available student volunteers and physician preceptors. Trying to serve too many patients can overwhelm program resources, leading to staff burnout and low-quality care.
  • Find strong community partners: The program's success depends in large part on having community partners who share similar ideals and goals. In this case, staff at Elijah's Promise support the program enthusiastically and play a critical role in identifying potential patients and convincing them they will benefit from seeking care at the clinic.

Sustaining This Innovation

  • Maintain strong institutional support: Although the program is run primarily by students, the medical school plays an important role in sustaining it. Ongoing support from the dean's office and key faculty members, for example, helps to ensure the program's long-term survival.
  • Look for ways to enhance care: Physician preceptors and third- and fourth-year students often identify innovative ways to enhance program services. For example, after recognizing that many patients had significant mental health needs, they recommended incorporating psychiatric residents into the program.

More Information

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Contact the Innovator

Susan Giordano
Program Coordinator, HIPHOP-Promise Clinic
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
675 Hoes Lane, Room N-101A
Piscataway, NJ 08854
(732) 235-4198

References/Related Articles

The Web site for the Homeless and Indigent Population Health Outreach Project (HIPHOP), the student organization that runs the Promise Clinic, is available at:

The Elijah's Promise Web site is available at:


1 The Uninsured and the Difference That Health Insurance Makes. The Kaiser Family Foundation. 2009. Available at: (If you don't have the software to open this PDF, download free Adobe Acrobat ReaderĀ® software External Web Site Policy.).
2 National Alliance to End Homelessness. Homelessness Counts: Changes in Homelessness from 2005 to 2007. January 12, 2009. Available at:
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Original publication: November 07, 2012.
Original publication indicates the date the profile was first posted to the Innovations Exchange.

Last updated: November 20, 2013.
Last updated indicates the date the most recent changes to the profile were posted to the Innovations Exchange.