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Taking It to the Streets: How Street Medicine Detroit Offers Health Care to Those in Need

Street Medicine

Guest Contributors: Andrew Wayne and Anirudha Rathnam

Established in 2012, Street Medicine Detroit (SMD) is a collaborative effort between health-care professionals, homeless-outreach workers, and student volunteers geared toward providing health-care services to Detroit’s homeless population. SMD was founded by medical student Jonathan Wong and is modeled after the Street Medicine paradigm pioneered in the 1990s by Dr. James Withers of Pittsburgh. Medical student volunteers take part in weekly “street runs” by teaming up with members of Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO) Homeless Recovery Services unit, including nurse practitioner Dean Carpenter, to provide medical services to individuals in shelters, at soup kitchens, or on the streets of Detroit.

Too many people in Detroit are experiencing homelessness; the 2011 Homeless Management Information System reported that over 19,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Detroit, including 1,729 veterans and 5,126 people who met the criteria for chronic homelessness. These individuals face numerous barriers to accessing health care, which SMD minimizes by targeting care directly to those on the streets and in shelters. Through extensive partnerships, SMD not only provides medical screenings and treatments, but also strives to facilitate health insurance enrollment, health services referrals, and through an integrated care model, relies on homeless recovery service programs such as NSO’s The Road Home to secure permanent supportive housing for its patients.

SMD is an effective organization that has developed quickly thanks to its ambitious leadership, experienced community partners, and enthusiastic volunteers. To date, SMD has conducted approximately 97 street runs, including 373 total patient encounters, 60 of which were follow-ups.

Many success stories have resulted from the combined work of SMD and its community partners. For instance, Mr. Mason (name changed for confidentiality) was a veteran living at the St. John shelter who first presented to SMD in December 2012 with symptoms of a cold. Upon taking a detailed history, SMD volunteers learned that he also suffered from type-2 diabetes and had run out of medication months before. During the street run, volunteers refilled Mr. Mason’s medication and suggested a visit to NSO for further medical testing. During a follow-up visit during a street run the next month, volunteers were happy to see that Mr. Mason was managing his diabetes well: he had stopped drinking soda and was watching his diet, and the medication was further reducing his blood sugar. However, he had run out of anxiety medication and was experiencing panic attacks. This time, SMD referred him to a psychiatrist for treatment. Since then, Mr. Mason has regularly met with peer support specialists and social workers with NSO’s The Road Home to secure housing. He is now receiving comprehensive medical care at the VA Medical Center and notes that his early visits with SMD helped him to take back control of his life.

In addition to the work mentioned above, educating patients is one of SMD’s primary goals. Volunteers do this weekly as part of their street runs, and now SMD will be providing general health tips and advice as part of a recurring column in Thrive: Detroit. Stay tuned for our future articles featuring general health care tips, advice on navigating the health care system, and SMD updates, including locations of our future street runs.

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