JOHNSON CITY – The Street Medicine Interest Group (SMIG), a new student organization at East Tennessee State University, is building bridges with community partners to help people who are experiencing homelessness overcome barriers to health care.
The group hosted its first flu clinic on Friday, Dec. 18, at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church. This event provided donations of warm clothing to many and flu shots to 12 individuals who are experiencing homelessness in the Appalachian Highlands.
The SMIG is an interprofessional student organization that is comprised of approximately 60 students representing ETSU’s five health sciences colleges including the Quillen College of Medicine, Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, College of Nursing, College of Public Health and College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences. It was organized by students who were looking for a way to make a difference in the community.
“We started the Street Medicine Interest Group as a way to bring students together over a shared desire to care for those who are experiencing homelessness,” said William Miller, a second-year student at ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine. “When you are in the middle of studying for weekly exams, it can be easy to forget why you wanted to come to school in the first place.
“SMIG became a way for us to refocus on what is important. We hoped that as our interprofessional group began to grow, we would find ways to make a difference in the local community. Part of caring for others involves meeting people wherever they are – sometimes that is not within the walls of a hospital or clinic.”
In fall 2019, the students approached Dr. Brian Cross, director of ETSU’s Interprofessional Education and Research Center and associate professor at Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, about their idea, and he enlisted Dr. Patricia Amadio, assistant professor of Family Medicine at Quillen College of Medicine, as the faculty sponsor.
“We have many wonderful organizations in our community who are well established and doing wonderful work to help this population,” Amadio said. “Our goal is to build trust within the community and work alongside these efforts in order to help lower the barriers to access to health care.”
The group is working with organizations such as the Johnson City Downtown Day Center, which is a safe place for individuals who are experiencing homelessness to get essential services and health care, to identify ways students can help the homeless community. The Johnson City Downtown Day Center is managed by ETSU’s College of Nursing and provided invaluable support to the SMIG flu clinic.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” said Cross. “We look at this as another way that ETSU can be a good community partner, and we’re very excited to identify other interprofessional opportunities for our students to serve this community.”
Their first flu clinic at Munsey was a good example of the community partnerships SMIG is seeking, as Munsey has a thriving ministry in the downtown community. Munsey was pleased to welcome the students to host the flu clinic outside the church.
“We are dedicated to serving the downtown community whether they be homeless or across the street at the John Sevier Center,” said Steve Wheeler, missions coordinator at Munsey. “Whatever we can do to meet that need, we are going to do it. By reaching out to other agencies, we are able to coordinate and work together to solve the problems that exist in our community. We’re thankful that we’re in a position to be able to help. We are here for our neighbors and our community.”
The SMIG student volunteers said their first event was a success.
“I think it went wonderfully,” said Taylor Coston, a third-year student pharmacist at Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy. “The most important thing was to establish relationships and get to know people, so it was a huge success.”
Working with faculty from the health sciences colleges, Cross and Amadio developed a “mini-curriculum” online module for the students who volunteered in the flu clinic. The training modules covered topics such as health literacy and trauma-informed care to prepare students to build trust and work with patients. As additional preparation for the flu clinic, earlier this month the SMIG hosted a donation drive to collect warm clothing that could be distributed to the attendees.
As the new year approaches, the students see many possibilities for the SMIG to continue to build trust and a presence wherever they are needed. They are discussing future outreach projects such as assisting the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness’s Point-in-Time (PIT) count, which is a count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January, and assisting with distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to people experiencing homelessness.
SMIG co-founder and second-year medical student Jarred Millard is excited about the possibilities.
“There are approximately 400 individuals experiencing homelessness in our area,” Millard said. “While there are incredible organizations within our community that serve this population, ETSU SMIG is unique in that it brings interprofessional groups of students and faculty to the streets to serve folks at their point of need, wherever that may be.”
To learn more about SMIG, email firstname.lastname@example.org.