Student-run organization offers primary health care to underserved patients in Texas' Rio Grande Valley

FOR RELEASE: Dec. 20, 2006

GALVESTON, Texas — Since 1998, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston students have been traveling to South Texas to offer health care to some of the nation’s poorest citizens as part of a group called Frontera de Salud. The service organization, founded and staffed by UTMB students, has significantly expanded its humanitarian efforts one year after receiving a $50,000 grant from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

Frontera de Salud, or “frontier of health” in Spanish, consists of medical, nursing and allied health students who work together to offer primary health care to medically underserved residents of Brownsville and Cameron Park, a community of 7,000 residents near the Texas-Mexico border that is statistically the poorest area in the United States. Since receiving the Hearst Foundation contribution, the organization has established a chapter at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Students from UTMB and UTHSC-SA serve patients in communities in and around Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Laredo during home visits and at local clinics. UTMB’s Frontera organization is working to establish chapters at other academic health centers in Texas.

The two Frontera de Salud chapters have increased the number of mission trips to South Texas to 10 from six, with 124 health professions students providing care to 1,255 patients. That is about 500 more than the previous year. The chapters’ goal for next year is to care for an additional 500 patients.

Along with providing services like women’s health screenings, Frontera de Salud volunteers screen for diseases common among the Hispanic community, such as diabetes and hypertension. They also offer health classes, men’s health discussion groups, and depression screening and counseling.

The Hearst Foundation grant has enabled the student organization to add pediatric services to weekend clinic schedules, including well-child physicals, physician referrals, vaccinations and counseling, while student volunteers may spend month-long stints in an impoverished community as part of class electives.

Dr. Kirk L. Smith, executive director of Frontera, co-founded the organization after witnessing the health conditions of many impoverished South Texas communities as a UTMB medical student. Smith and a handful of his fellow students traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in 1998 to conduct their third-year clerkships at public clinics. While treating patients, they learned of the bleak situations most residents faced when seeking health care. An estimated 54,000 working poor live in the region and cannot afford health insurance. They earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, and most are too young to receive Medicare insurance.

Smith and the other students returned to UTMB and established Frontera de Salud to actively serve those lacking any form of health insurance.

“Frontera de Salud provides an ideal opportunity for academic health center students to learn how to work together as a team while administering compassionate care,” said Smith, who directs the program at UTMB’s Institute for the Medical Humanities. “It’s imperative that students are receptive to cultural diversity to give truly patient-centered health care. Frontera helps make that possible. I’m grateful to the William Randolph Hearst Foundation for supporting our efforts to aid some of our state’s neediest patients.” Smith is UTMB’s Arnold P. Gold Assistant Professor of Family Medicine.

Paul M. Ford, a fourth-year medical student at UTMB, said joining Frontera de Salud has enhanced his understanding of the health care system. “Frontera de Salud provides an opportunity for students to get involved — to see the barriers people have in gaining access to health care — and then to work through the legislative and medical systems to help patients get the care they need,” he said.

Dr. Howard A. Brody, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities, said the Hearst Foundation grant ensures that many more UTMB students will be able to experience the satisfaction of improving the quality of life for South Texas families. “Frontera de Salud provides an opportunity for our students to make an immediate impact in the community by caring for a population that might otherwise never receive health care,” Brody said. “The Hearst Foundation should be applauded for enabling us to extend our services to areas where they are truly needed.”

The Hearst Foundation Inc. was established in 1945 by philanthropist and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. In 1948, Hearst founded the California Charities Foundation, the name of which was changed to the William Randolph Hearst Foundation after Hearst’s death three years later. Both foundations are dedicated to the advancement of education, culture, health and social service for underrepresented and underserved populations. They are independent private philanthropies separate from The Hearst Corporation.
The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston
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Galveston, Texas 77555-0144