Student-run clinic provides free healthcare to Nashville residents


Amanda Nwaba

Since 2004, Vanderbilt medical students who volunteer at the Shade Tree Clinic have worked to provide free medical care to patients in Middle Tennessee. The clinic is one of the largest student-run free clinics in the country.

Shade Tree provides two clinics every week that are open for anyone in the Nashville community to receive free medical care from medical students. Daniel Hong is a student in his second year at Vanderbilt Medical School who is involved with the clinic and its fundraising efforts.

With the clinic being purely run by medical students, volunteers are responsible for checking patients in, gathering information, filling out prescriptions, handling clinic finances and acting as clinic directors.

“There are typically two med students with a patient, a preclinical and a clinical one,” Hong said. “From the moment you step into the clinic, there’s a med student behind the counter who takes your information and another who takes your vitals and gets a history from you.”

Hong explained that preclinical and clinical students are at different stages of their education, with a preclinical student still in the lecture stage of medical school and a clinical student having more experience working in a hospital.

“It’s really great because you have some student-to-student teaching and an older med student learns how to conduct interviews and gather information, which is probably the most important thing that we learn in the first few years,” he said.

I think that it’s a bit more of a rich and immersive experience than traditional shadowing

The clinic is overseen by an attending physician, to whom all the medical students working in the clinic on a given day report to. The clinic, on Dickerson Pike, is able to provide lab tests and some medications to its patients and is able to utilize the Vanderbilt medical center’s resources.

Hong said that the clinic also runs with the help of some undergraduate students.

“We have a lot of undergrads who volunteer,” Hong said. “The most popular one is probably acting as a translator. A large portion of our patients are Spanish-speaking only, and we have undergrads who volunteer and act as translators and they can really help speed the clinic along.”

Undergraduate students also volunteer at the clinic’s front desk, assisting the clinic coordinator with scheduling and making charts. In addition, undergraduate students have the opportunity to shadow the medical students in the clinic.

“I think that it’s a bit more of a rich and immersive experience than traditional shadowing, just because it is student-run and med students are a lot more likely to let undergrads get involved and maybe ask a few questions, or explain why they asked a question or what they’re doing,” Hong said.

Hong said his first experience treating a patient in the clinic was memorable for him because of the opportunity to not only observe, but also learn about providing medical care.

“When I shadowed doctors before, there was a big disconnect for me as the non-medical person trying to understand what they were thinking,” he said. “It was so different for me being in a med student run clinic, though. I could relate to their questions and how they were thinking. I was able to better learn how to more efficiently use time and how to ask appropriate questions in a manner that makes the patient more comfortable .”

We’re able to not only provide care, but we provide continuity of care

The clinic’s impact on the community is evident in its growing numbers and the investment of time and money that keeps it running, according to Hong.

“Everyone we see is uninsured, so a lot of them are just swept under the system and wouldn’t get healthcare otherwise,” Hong said.  “They vastly appreciate it and it’s great because we have a lot of patients who come back consistently. We’re able to not only provide care, but we provide continuity of care, too, by being open for so long.”

The clinic has two main fundraisers: the Shade Tree Benefit Dinner and the Shade Tree Trot, an annual 5k that is taking place on Saturday, April 21, 2017.

“It’s a really fun community event that underlies the  community goals of care that Shade Tree is all about, and it’s for a good cause,” Hong said. “We love having people involved and participating, and there’s a lot of opportunities to be involved as an undergrad, whether it’s coming to the clinic or being there on race day.”