Sam Cranston/Genesis

A calling to care

Healthcare | Volunteer doctors, nurses, and dentists fill a crucial role in providing healthcare to the needy, especially when licensing and liability laws provide for their needs

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

Retired neurologist James Pugh wears a white lab coat on Mondays and Tuesdays when he volunteers at Charlotte Community Health Clinic (CCHC). The lean, white-haired doctor says his father practiced medicine for 50 years, “so I have another six years until I match him.” In his regular practice he saw elderly patients struggling with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Now he sees younger patients with epilepsy, back problems, and multiple sclerosis. 

Like many physician volunteers, Pugh became involved with CCHC because another doctor asked him to. He has continued because he finds the work rewarding: “Everyone is super nice, and the patients are very appreciative. Everyone feels like they are doing good.”

Without volunteers like Pugh, the dozens of free and charitable clinics our reporters visited—some with hundreds of volunteers, some with a few—could not operate. According to the Kellogg Foundation, almost 80 percent of care to the uninsured is provided by private physicians: More than 260,000 doctors provide at least some charity care. Christian belief motivates some of them, but others just want to give back.

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Dr. William Grimes, director of RotaCare in Bellevue, Wash., a secular clinic funded by the local Rotary clubs, says, “Most doctors inherently want the ability to give help to people who need it. We just provide the infrastructure.” All he had to do to recruit volunteers was put up a few fliers at the major hospitals. RotaCare’s weekly Saturday clinic depends on about 70 volunteers who come once every four to six weeks.

Hilton Head Island, known for its 24 golf courses, miles of oceanfront beaches, and 250 restaurants, is a desirable place to retire. When Dr. Jack McConnell retired there, he expected to play lots of golf. But the co-inventor of Tylenol soon tired of the game. As he drove around the island, he noticed pockets of poverty. When he picked up hitchhikers, he’d ask where they went for medical care. He discovered that the island’s many employed but uninsured service workers—the people who tended golf courses, staffed hotels and restaurants, and made Hilton Head a nice vacation or retirement destination—weren’t getting care at all.

Motivated by Christian faith and compassion, McConnell decided to do something about that. He explained to the Savannah Morning News, “My father and my mother together taught me the value and the joy of a deep faith in Christ. They are my inspiration.” McConnell also mentioned Dr. Albert Schweitzer, “an inspiration to anyone in the healthcare field to go out and help those who had no access to healthcare.”

McConnell recruited retired doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to start the first Volunteers in Medicine clinic as a part-time, walk-in clinic. Now, 20 years later its campus provides behavioral health services, a dental clinic, and healthcare across 23 specialties.

Volunteers in Medicine staffer Ginger Allen says volunteers hear about the clinic from friends. They volunteer because they see the vast need and have a skill that can help meet that need. Eager to keep up with their professions, even after they retire, volunteers also like the camaraderie of being with other medical professionals. The typical volunteer comes in once a week, although some people volunteer seasonally when they are on the island. A further draw: They don’t have to bother with the business of medicine. No insurance, no billing codes.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, America faces a doctor shortage. As the country’s population grows and gets older, demand for health services will grow. That trend will intensify as the newly insured (as a result of “Obamacare”) seek doctors and the free preventive and diagnostic tests the law promises. Meanwhile, one-third of doctors are 55 or older and will retire over the next decade. These older doctors tend to work longer hours than newcomers to the profession, so as they retire the gap will grow. Even with more doctors in training, supply won’t keep up with increasing demand.

But what if many doctors in that new pool of retirees volunteered their skills? That would help close the gap, especially for the poor who are most likely to have trouble getting in to see a doctor. Concern about potential liability holds back some volunteers. Ginger Allen says in the early days of the Hilton Head Volunteers in Medicine clinic, potential volunteers asked, “What would happen if something went wrong?” Since many of them were licensed in other states, could they even volunteer in South Carolina? 

McConnell took those concerns to the legislature, which passed a law providing for a special volunteer license available to medical professionals from any state or Canada. South Carolina also passed a law granting immunity from civil liability to any licensed healthcare provider who provides voluntary uncompensated medical care.

With reporting by Tiffany Owens, Christina Darnell, and Kira Clark


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