12 5 pa students student run free clinics header
Jen Rosio, University of Utah Health
From Learning to Serving: The Impact of Physician Assistant Student-Led Free Clinics
Free clinics serve as a vital pillar for urgent medical care for underserved populations in our community. Four Physician Assistant students at University of Utah explain how their involvement in student-led free clinics have benefited the community—and their medical education.

ree clinics provide free, same-day access to high quality urgent medical care for all qualified patients. The sole purpose of many free clinics is to serve those members of our community who are in the most critical need of our help. These clinics are hugely beneficial, not only to the community, but to the students and providers who offer care there.

Working at the free clinics, specifically Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake and the Maliheh Free Clinic, has provided us all with an opportunity to connect with other communities and people we don't interact with day-to-day. We care for patients who are underserved and from marginalized communities and identities, and through our interactions with these individuals and communities we learn their cultures and their challenges. It’s an in-depth education on the many barriers to healthcare that people in the community can face. Within the clinic, we see patients who have many social determinants of health affecting their health including financial barriers, language barriers, issues with documentation or transportation.

Working with experienced providers in the free clinic teaches us how to help patients overcome those barriers and get the care they need.

Overcoming Challenges

Running free clinics also poses challenges to us as students. While the Urban Indian Center has existed for years, the student-run free clinic is new. As physician assistant students, many of us know how a clinic runs and how patient care is carried out. However, we don’t want to come in and tell anyone how this clinic should be run. We're constantly learning from current providers and staff members at the center on how to create this clinic in a way that fits this population’s needs and not just what we think should be done.

We also help student volunteers start to shift their view from seeing a patient as a case in a classroom, to seeing them as a real person with a full life outside of the clinic. Didactic education can sometimes objectify people as diseases rather than a living person. Patients are not just part of a workflow, not a box to check off. We are reminded to explain medical terms and issues in a way that people understand, not as if they are reciting a textbook.

To provide quality care, we also have to quickly learn about these communities, heir history, why they are historically marginalized, their unique social determinants of their health, how they interact with healthcare and their specific concerns. We have to meet patients where they are and provide culturally sensitive and responsive care. Understanding our patients' perspectives and honoring their experiences can be challenging when coming from a different background.

Fulfilling and rewarding experiences

But even with challenges, we find our work in the free clinics extremely rewarding. We are given such a unique opportunity to learn about different populations and their experiences from the staff and patients at the free clinics. We are only able to be part of the clinics, thanks to their generosity and kindness; it is a privilege and humbling to be able to offer them care.

Connecting with these communities is a reminder of why we go through all this schooling in the first place: to serve those who are most vulnerable and underserved.

The knowledge we gain from them makes us better providers. We are able to apply what we are learning in the classroom to real situations. It takes something that can feel abstract and makes it very real and important. We get to see how a clinic operates and get firsthand patient care experience that benefits our current patients and our future patients.

One of the most impactful parts of working in free clinics is exposure to diverse populations. This exposure helps us be more mindful of different cultures and learn cultural humility. We can realize all we don’t know about how others are living and get a more well-rounded view of the world. We can recognize the ways we need to grow as a person to provide healthcare that meets an individual’s needs. We can recognize the challenges patients face every day and how it impacts their health.

Lasting Impacts

Ultimately, the impact of our work in free clinics extends beyond our immediate interactions. As students, the longitudinal and cumulative effects of these experiences are transformative. We gain insights that shape our perspectives, making us more empathetic and socially responsible healthcare providers. This growth is not just personal; it directly benefits the communities we serve in the long run.

In essence, while the patients receive care and support from us, the lasting impact is reciprocal. Our continuous learning and development contribute to the improvement of healthcare services in these communities over time.

The knowledge we acquire and the skills we honed in free clinics become part of a broader effort to address healthcare disparities, making a positive difference in the lives of both the patients and the communities as a whole.

The role of student run clinics

Student-run free clinics are an invaluable part of healthcare for our community. We provide care later into the evening, making it easier for people to get the care they need. We help provide free care to the uninsured, so they don’t have to choose between healthcare and other necessary expenses in their lives.

Our experiences with these clinics have instilled in us a passion for helping others find the care they need. We have a passion for connecting patients to resources that can improve their health and their lives, from food banks to job services to housing assistance. We have a greater understanding of our community and the people within it. These clinics improve healthcare not just for the patients who visit them, but for all the patients we will interact with in our careers.


Mitchel Vellinga

Physician Assistant Student, University of Utah Health

Jessica Thatcher

Physician Assistant Student, University of Utah Health

Blake Johnson

Physician Assistant Student, University of Utah Health

Alison Hoang

Physician Assistant Student, University of Utah Health

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