USF Health and Florida Hospital Tampa partner to expand BRIDGE Clinic

The partnership will increase access to specialty care for uninsured residents served by the USF Health student-run program and significantly increase the number of patients seen.

By Saundra Amrhein

Further strengthening ties between the two institutions, Florida Hospital Tampa has committed $1.2 million in donated goods and services to the University of South Florida to help expand community-centered medical care through the USF Health BRIDGE Clinic.

The BRIDGE clinic – a nationally recognized, student-run free community clinic now in its eighth year – provides primary medical care for more than 800 underserved patients a year from the University Community Area one night a week inside the USF Health Morsani Center for Advanced Health Care.

BRIDGE_Florida Hospital_group_RSS

Leadership of USF Health and Florida Hospital Tampa as well as medical faculty and student volunteers pose for a photo on opening night of the BRIDGE Clinic at Florida Hospital.

Now, Florida Hospital Tampa’s donation of goods, services, office space and personnel will help significantly increase the number of uninsured patients seen through the BRIDGE clinic, expand specialty care and procedures, and cut weeks off the appointment waiting times for new and established patients, said Dr. Lucy Guerra, a volunteer co-medical director and one of several attending USF Health physicians at BRIDGE.

The additional resources for the BRIDGE clinic extension at the hospital – set up inside Florida Hospital Tampa’s renowned Pepin Heart Institute, located on Fletcher Avenue across the street from the university – will also help mitigate the plight of working families who cannot afford or qualify for insurance in the new federal health insurance marketplace but who also don’t qualify for Medicaid, Dr. Guerra said.

Officials from both institutions said they are thrilled about the partnership, which adds to their ongoing research and patient care collaborations across the Tampa Bay region.

“We’re incredibly grateful,” said Dr. Charles Lockwood, senior vice president of USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine. “This is a clear indication that our missions are completely aligned. We are here for the patients.”

Dr. Peter Bath, vice president of mission for Florida Hospital West Florida Region, echoed Dr. Lockwood’s sentiments and said partnering with the hospital’s next-door neighbor to provide health care for struggling families was a continuation of the hospital’s mission.

“This is a natural extension of what our mission is all about, caring for people and giving back to our community,” Dr. Bath said. “We know needs are significant for the underserved and we will continue to look for ways to help the community throughout all of our nine Florida Hospitals in the West Florida Region.”

BRIDGE_Florida Hospital_student wi patient_RSS

USF medical student volunteer Jordant Vanzant checks the blood pressure of BRIDGE Clinic patient Sandra Avilez.

The donation and partnership stem from more than a year of meetings spurred by both university medical students seeking more resources for their high-demand clinic, and the encouragement of one of the hospital’s doctors.

Dr. Marian Menezes, a physician on staff at Florida Hospital Tampa, remembers how his wife – Dr. Lynette Menezes, the assistant dean for international affairs at the USF Morsani College of Medicine – convinced him to attend the BRIDGE clinic’s annual fundraising talent show more than a year ago.

“I fell in love with what they were doing,” Dr. Menezes said. He immediately sought out ways to help.

The medical students relayed their concerns about space, patients’ waiting times and the need for more specialty care for patients with serious medical problems. Currently USF doctors waive their fees for BRIDGE patients for certain surgeries and specialty procedures, but there are still facility fees and other types of expenses that add up to thousands of dollars. Dr. Menezes brought the issue to the attention of his colleagues at the hospital.

Expanding services offered by the BRIDGE clinic at Florida Hospital Tampa will significantly cut down patients’ wait times for appointments, which can run from three to four months, said Michelle Blanco, a USF fourth-year medical student and executive student director at the clinic.

“Now being able to tell your patients we can see you in the next few weeks – it’s very exciting,” Blanco said.

The patients will also have increased access to surgeries and specialty tests and procedures in areas like radiology, gynecology, orthopedics and surgery. “Both efficiency and quality of care are going to increase at BRIDGE,” Blanco said.

BRIDGE_Florida Hospital_Guerra_Gonzalez_RSS

L to R: Dr. Theron Ebel, a critical care physician at Florida Hospital Tampa, with USF Health Morsani College of Medicine faculty members Dr. Eduardo Gonzalez and Dr. Lucy Guerra, co-medical directors of the BRIDGE Clinic, and USF medical student Kathryn Dean.

The expanded BRIDGE clinic, like the current one, will continue to pair medical students with supervising physicians. In addition to the USF Health doctors who volunteer at the Morsani site, the new site will bring in volunteering physicians from Florida Hospital Tampa. As the numbers of participating hospital physicians grow, the clinic at the hospital may increase its capacity from one Thursday night each month to opening as many as four nights monthly.

Dr. Krishna Tewari, a hospitalist physician at Florida Hospital Tampa, will be among the first. He said he plans to volunteer at least two nights a month.

“I’m excited to see the work here,” Dr. Tewari said.

The expansion also creates more volunteer opportunities for USF students from the colleges and schools of pharmacy, physical therapy, public health and social work – as well as student interpreters. They currently rotate through the current BRIDGE clinic and its 13 exam rooms at the Morsani Center.

Ali Antar, 22, nearing the end of his second year of medical school at USF, said with the expansion of BRIDGE, he would love to volunteer even more time at both sites. After a year at the original BRIDGE clinic location, the experience has deepened his understanding of the practice of medicine beyond what he’s learning in the classroom.

“When you’re a lower classman, any real clinical experience changes your perspective,” Antar said.

BRIDGE_Florida Hospital_conference_RSS

Meanwhile, patients are grateful for faster access to needed care.

“I went to get this appointment in October,” said Sandra Avilez, 51, sitting in one of the four BRIDGE clinic exam rooms inside the Pepin Heart Institute at Florida Hospital Tampa on the night of the expansion’s opening.

Avilez, formerly a customer service representative, lost her health insurance coverage with her job when her company moved her department and positions to another state. She hoped to get a check-up with a doctor at BRIDGE, because she was recently experiencing hot flashes. While waiting for an appointment these last few months, she did her best to keep herself informed about her health condition by reading articles and taking vitamins.

She was relieved to see the new BRIDGE clinic office space open at Florida Hospital Tampa in late February. It enabled the staff to bump up an appointment for both Avilez and her 77-year-old father.

“We were luck they could move up our appointment,” Avilez said. “Our date was for the end of March.”

BRIDGE_FL Hospital_patient portrait_RSS

Sandra Avilez, who lost her health insurance coverage with her job when her company moved her department to another state, was relieved to get an appointment sooner than expected at the BRIDGE Clinic.

BRIDGE_FL Hospital_Slone_Lockwood_RSS

.

Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications and Marketing