Athens Free Mobile Clinic Provides Thousands of Athenians with Holistic Primary and COVID-19 Care

By Reaganne Coile

Powered by the faculty and staff of the AU/UGA Medical Partnership, the Athens Free Mobile Clinic has provided more than $132,000 in free primary medical care to more than 600 underserved members of the Athens community since the clinic’s inception in 2018. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mobile clinic has adapted to serve emerging and critical community healthcare needs.

The clinic is taking a multi-faceted approach to addressing COVID-19. Dr. Suzanne Lester, Associate Professor of Family Medicine and the clinic’s Medical Director, reported that the clinic conducted more than 3,433 COVID-19 tests between April and December 2020 for Athens residents who face challenges related to transportation, insurance and homelessness, among other issues.

The clinic worked with the Georgia Department of Public Health Northeast Health District, Athens-Clarke County Government, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and local nonprofit and community organizations to identify and serve Athens neighborhoods and workplaces. Lester and AU/UGA Medical Partnership faculty Dr. Lia Bruner and Lori Hanna continued to provide direct service to community members while students have helped to screen patients, schedule appointments and coordinate support services.

“The mobile clinic provides hope, comfort, and security to those who have nowhere to turn in such unprecedented times. While hospitals have been flooded with COVID cases, and COVID testing sites have struggled with limited testing kits, the mobile clinic has stepped up to perform COVID testing and provide care to the patients most vulnerable to the virus, both medically and financially,” said Hamzah Ali, a third-year AU/UGA Medical Partnership student . Ali, along with Lester and fellow third-year student Zac Adams, helped found the Athens Free Mobile Clinic.

Lester said volunteers and operators have adopted the motto, “We are still here for you,” to encourage community members to feel comfortable reaching out to clinic staff for assistance. Volunteers also have worked with local agencies to provide holistic responses to those diagnosed with COVID-19 including help coordinating medical care, financial services, meal deliveries, safe quarantine procedures, childcare and social support programs.

In November prior to the return of Clarke County School District (CCSD) students to in-person instruction, the Athens Free Clinic provided more than 350 tests at the Medical Partnership Back-To-School testing event at Clarke Central High School. Clinic staff worked in partnership with CCSD school nurses to test students and staff for more than six hours.

“Dr. Lester and the Athens Free Mobile Clinic have been an invaluable resource and community partner to the Clarke County School District. Over the years, they have worked with our school nurses to provide health services to students and their families who may not otherwise have access to healthcare. Most recently, they have provided two drive-thru COVID-19 mass testing events for CCSD students and staff and are in the process of planning additional testing events as the school district looks to bring students back together face-to-face,” said Amy Roark, Director of Nursing Services for the Clarke County School District. “The Athens Free Mobile Clinic has greatly increased access to healthcare and COVID testing in our community, and the Clarke County School District is grateful for their partnership.”

While responding to the pandemic, the clinic has continued to provide primary care to community members, including acute care visits and management of chronic medical conditions.

“We cannot shut everything in healthcare down, because people will always have chronic medical conditions that require treatment,” Adams said.

The Athens Free Mobile Clinic provides essential services to some of Athens’ most vulnerable citizens and continues working to serve more people. Lester noted that plans for the clinic’s future include expanding services to compliment current mobile services, provide sub-specialist care and offer continuity. The clinic currently staffs AU/UGA Medical Partnership graduates and hopes to hire more alumni as mobile clinic physicians and educators as the program expands.

“It is important that we continue to have a positive presence in the community and be a place that people can trust for medical care. In the future, I hope we can provide more resources and services that often can be too expensive for patients to pay for out-of-pocket,” said Dr. Brett Magner, an Athens physician and Assistant Professor of Family Medicine for the Medical Partnership.

The AU/UGA Medical Partnership Athens Free Mobile Clinic is funded through the Georgia Department of Public Health and the AU/UGA Medical Partnership Campus Dean Discretionary Fund and Curricular Budget in addition to grants and donations. The Athens Free Mobile Clinic partners with University of Georgia units such as the Mary Frances Early College of Education, Geography Department at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, School of Law HELP Clinic Fellow, Family and Consumer Sciences Family Counseling and ASPIRE Clinic, College of Pharmacy, School of Social Work, College of Public Health, and College of Veterinary Medicine. Community partners include the Clarke County School District, Georgia Department of Public Health – NE Health District, HIV Testing and Outreach, Mercy Clinic, Athens Community Council on Aging, Athens Housing Authority, St. Mary’s Health System, Piedmont Athens Regional, Oasis Catolico, Nuci’s Space, and Sparrow’s Nest. The clinic is staffed by UGA faculty, staff, and students in addition to local practicing family medicine physicians.