USF Health, Tampa General bring health care to communities that need it most

Two Fridays a month, a group of medical students from the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine gather in downtown Tampa to go check on the homeless. They walk a route that takes them along Franklin Street, west on Zack to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, over to Gaslight Park and back to the starting point. They stop and talk to the people they see living on the streets, a number of them lounging on the sidewalk. They leave hygiene kits, which include a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and shampoo, next to those who are sleeping.

The future doctors, most of them wearing green T-shirts with a red cross on them, are volunteers with a nine-year-old student-run program called Tampa Bay Street Medicine. They offer to check blood pressure and hear about any health problems that may need attention in a free clinic staffed by students and a licensed clinician from USF Health. USF Morsani College of Medicine student Doniya Milani, street run director for Tampa Bay Street Medicine, asks a homeless man about his health.They give over-the-counter medicines for aches and pains and other maladies and bandages for wounds. They hand out mosquito repellent, sunblock and socks, which are valued greatly by the homeless.

“It’s a generous service,’’ says Keith Johnson, 44. “I always look forward to the socks. Love the socks.’’ 

Johnson is a traveler, he says, noting that he’s been in 35 states and lived two years in Mexico during his 10 years on the street. His health is good, he says. He sometimes takes Tylenol from the students.

“Living out this way is hard on a body,’’ he says. “Sleeping on the concrete.’’
Tampa Bay Street Medicine is just one of the services for people in the Tampa area who have little or no access to medical care. USF Health’s new mobile health unit, called the Mo-Bull Nurse Medical Clinic, is expected to be on the road in late May. 

Outfitted with two private examination rooms, a bathroom and a lab, the mobile health unit will travel to neighborhoods in need, says Usha Menon, dean of the USF College of Nursing. Two nurse practitioners will give check-ups and vaccinations and provide primary care for patients, including wellness visits, pediatrics and OB-GYN care.

“Just all the stuff that you would normally go to a primary care person but you don’t because you don’t have health insurance and you wait until it’s so bad that now you’re in the ER,’’ Menon says.

The van will park in neighborhoods in Wimauma, Sulphur Springs, Tampa Heights, Port Tampa Bay and South St. Petersburg, areas selected “because they have what is called a very high social vulnerability index score, which means the people are poor,” Menon says. Their incomes are much lower than federal poverty guidelines. 

“They lack insurance, or the bigger problem is people that are underinsured,’’ Menon says. 

The project is funded for four years through a $3.85 million federal grant.
Tampa General Hospital has two new mobile health care vans that should be parking in under-served neighborhoods within a few months, says Marion Dawkins, vice president of ambulatory operations for the hospital. The medical vans will also be used to serve employees of corporate clients on-site.

They were purchased through COVID-19 CARES Act funding, which was allocated by the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners. The vehicles were ordered in 2020. It took two years to receive them because of production delays and the high demand for such units due to the pandemic, Dawkins says. They will be staffed by registered nurses. Each vehicle has a private exam room that has a wheelchair lift, a registration and lab area and a bathroom, enabling the clinicians to collect urine samples.

She says the staff will provide physicals, vaccinations and most other primary care services, including ultrasound checks for pregnant women and wellness checks during pregnancy.

The hospital is working with Hillsborough County officials to identify the areas of need, Dawkins says.

Nursing students will rotate through USF Health’s mobile unit to assist with patient care, Menon says.

“(A) primary focus is educating our students as to what really contributes to poor health outcomes, and it’s not just because a patient is not doing something,” she says. “There are a lot of factors that go into it. We want our students to learn and understand how to integrate those factors into the plan of care.”

In the coming weeks another USF Health outlet, the Port Clinic, will open to provide treatment, vaccinations, screenings and primary care to sailors docked at Port Tampa Bay. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is slated for late May. When it opens, it will free up the mobile unit to go to another under-served community, Menon says.

Young people of all income brackets can go to the Ybor Youth Clinic to get confidential testing and treatment for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, says Dr. Lisa Sanders, clinic director.

“Then we have an appointment side, where we see those with infections. We treat HIV, offer preventive medications, post-exposure medications for kids who think they may have been exposed,’’ she says. “Wrapped around all that, a risk reduction kind of strategy. We want to get them so they are not coming back (repeatedly).'' 

The clinic, 1315 E. 7th Ave., Suite 104, opened in 2012. It serves young people ages 13 to 24. Most patients are between 18 and 24, Sanders says. The staff sees between 180 and 200 patients a month, half for testing and half for appointments. Under state law, patients may keep their diagnoses and treatment private, even from their parents. 

“But we try to get them to involve their parents,” Sanders says.

The clinic is trying to provide a positive health care experience for the young people so that they will continue to stay engaged and proactive in their healthcare, Sanders says.

“This day and age we need to get the word out about services because kids need services like ours and they need comfortable places to come,’’ she says. “Because these problems are not going away.’’

Tampa Bay Street Medicine, which began in 2014, is among a number of programs around the country that serve people living on the street. It also runs a free clinic, staffed by students and a licensed health professional, for street patients with more serious health issues. And it operates a clinic for refugees and people seeking asylum in the United States.Keith Johnson, who says he’s been living on the street for 10 years, calls the aid from the medical students in the Tampa Bay Street Medicine program “a generous service.’’

On the street runs, the students really get to know the patients, some of them they see regularly, and it helps the students provide more targeted care, says Lila Gutstein, a third-year student at Morsani College of Medicine and co-president, with Apoorva Ravichandran, of Tampa Bay Street Medicine.

“I think medical students are excited by the opportunity to learn how to treat all kinds of people,’’ she adds. “The fact that we’re able to provide free care to these patients I think is really worthwhile, and it’s helping me become a better provider in the future.’’

The street runs last about two hours. The volunteers meet at 5:30 p.m. in the parking lot of the Portico Cafe, a coffee shop that supports the homeless at Tyler Street and Florida Avenue. There, Doniya Milani, the street run director and third-year med student, goes over the medicines and hygiene items they’ll carry with them. She offers tips on making these normally wary patients comfortable.

“This is common sense to a lot of you, but it’s good to reiterate it sometimes. When you are approaching patients, a lot of times these people get a little uncomfortable with a ton of us walking up at the same time, so maybe use the buddy system and maybe have like one or two people at a time,’’ she says.

“Obviously, if someone is lying on the floor it’s not very polite to tower over them, and it makes them feel uncomfortable, so try to get down to be eye-level with people when you are talking to them. You know, just basic things you would do to any other human being.’’

Milani started volunteering as a graduate student at USF in 2019. She finds it gratifying working with the most “vulnerable and marginalized’’ group of people in the community.

“I think it’s really a privilege and an honor to be able to meet them where they are, out here, and to be able to offer what we can to them,’’ she says. “So I would say it’s really been a rewarding experience.’’

For more information, go to Mo-Bull Clinic, Tampa Bay Street Medicine, Ybor Youth Clinic, TGH Mobile Care to You.

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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.