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The Illini Medical Screening Society

There’s a Champaign County healthcare organization currently in operation that you might not be aware of.  It’s called Illini Medical Screening Society.  The group is a registered University of Illinois student organization with 100+ members.  In its own words, the organization “provides the low-income and uninsured citizens of Champaign County a free medical screening service where individuals at risk for disease are suggested to follow-up at local free health clinics.”  In particular, the group screens its clients for Diabetes, Hypertension and High Cholesterol. 

DoctorIllini Medical Screening society sees Champaign County as an area of growing poverty, and one that is therefore especially in need of the services they offer.  Citing statistics made available by Champaign County Health Care Consumers, IMMS President Grant Reed noted, “approximately 55,000 County residents have no health insurance.”

The group is staffed mainly by undergraduate pre-health majors at the U of I volunteering their time.  For pre-med major Foram Soni, it’s a valuable way to get experience providing direct care.  After all, you can’t just walk into a hospital and ask to help out with a surgery. When I talked to her at the group’s screening event on December 5th at Salt and Light in Champaign, she explained, “There aren’t a lot of opportunities to get hands-on experience without having some type of certification.” 

She also said, “I volunteered last year and have seen it evolve.  Today, I get to take people’s blood pressures.  It’s just by chance what you get to do.”  She went on to mention the group’s function of linking clients with other community resources: “We also give them a lot of information about places you can go.  We start the process and we follow through after that.”

At the December 5th screening, IMSS student volunteers wearing scrubs labeled with the group’s logo guided the clients who showed up through the process.  Clients were asked to fill out some forms soliciting medical history and also containing a series of questions about the client’s awareness of community health organizations and free clinics.  Vital signs were taken by the volunteers, and the clients were then screened for a variety of diseases by two volunteers using a Cholestech LDX machine.  The machine was on loan from Provena, who provides access to medical equipment to IMSS.  Finally, results were reviewed by the client in private with a medical doctor. 

Zach Skurski, a Communications major who is planning on going to medical school, was one of the operators of the Cholestech LDX machine.  He mentioned that working the machine wasn’t all that hard.  He also said that, relative to other U of I student organizations, members of IMSS find themselves playing a bigger part because the groupwhich was started in the fall of 2008is still developing: “The thing that surprised me the most is that everyone is an important member, because we’re new.”

Skurski said that for him, IMSS is “a very hands-on kind of thing.  I get to work with patients.  It gives me a chance to communicate with people from all walks of life.  A lot of people are really grateful for what we’re doing.” 

The group is designed to be both beneficial to the students who staff it and to the community it serves.  IMSS gives U of I undergraduates a chance to learn basic medical procedures and also to interact with and learn from the disadvantaged in the community.  At the same to time, it seeks to educate community members about their own health.  At the December 5th screening, for instance, a variety of handouts were available in both English and Spanish on Type II Diabetes and other diseases. 

IMSS volunteers are often pre-health majors.  Although they aren’t receiving any academic credit for their work, the experience looks good to professional and graduate programs that frequently look for clinical and extra-curricular hours.  Students who aren’t looking ahead to a future in healthcare help out as well.  According to Reed, “We also have many students that aren’t planning to be health professionals, too.  Finance & Accounting majors contribute to the budget and business proposals; Community Health majors research articles relevant to Champaign County health statistics and find health education brochures; and Advertising majors create flyers and press releases for our general promotion.”

All IMSS screenings are supervised by licensed healthcare providers.  At the screening I attended, there were two medical doctors present; one discussed test results with patients, and the otherDr. Cristina Medranorepresented Hope Community Health Center in Champaign.  Part of the reason she was at the event was to help individual patients through Hope, Frances Nelson, or elsewhere in the event that the screenings revealed the need for further treatment.  She stated, “We decided to do this with them in case any of the patients needed follow-up.  We have the ability to refer to Frances Nelson.  The main idea was to be able to help if they found any abnormalities.” Frances Nelson Community Health Center offers more extensive medical services than free clinics like Hope can on a sliding scale.  Their services are very much in demand among low-income and uninsured patients, and it’s difficult for newcomers to start receiving care from the organization.

IMSS is protected from lawsuits at their screenings by the Illinois Good Samaritan Act, which, among other things, is designed to help free clinics.  In the group’s own words, “745 ILCS 49/30 “Good Samaritan Act”: exempts all licensed health care providers from civil liability if they provide their services without compensation at an established free health clinic.  If any licensed health care provider is at our screenings and a copy of this Act is posted in a noticeable place, we will be exempt from any legal problems that may arise.” 

I asked Reed if dealing with all the legal issues is frustrating when you’re just trying to provide some very basic medical tests for free.  He said that it could be, and elaborated, “In today’s world, legality issues are a huge component to maintaining the survival of IMSS.  We always stress the importance of safety and anonymity for our clients and members alike.”

He also said, “Additionally, no undergraduate student wants to pay for a lawsuit on top of tuition debt, so we took every step possible to ensure that we were operating within legal bounds.  Luckily, the “Illinois Good Samaritan Act” covers non-profit healthcare organizations, the facility we operate in that day, and any licensed healthcare professional involved.  We would not exist without this coverage.  Unfortunately, we have a hard time recruiting physician volunteers because Illinois is such a bad state for malpractice.”

Reed stressed that client test results remain confidential: “If someone with insurance paid to receive a for-profit organization’s screening tests, their results would be sent to the insurance company for reimbursement and potentially increase their premiums if a condition were to be identified.  All of our results are completely confidential and will in no way be associated to your identify.  It just goes to show that the doctors are not the only ones worried about healthcare misuse.”

IMSS doesn’t claim to be practicing medicine, and make clear that the procedures their student volunteers do are not especially difficult to administer.  There is always a physician present at screenings.  IMSS  feel that they train students thoroughly before any client encounters.  Reed explained, “All members are required to complete our five-day training program that overviews Champaign County’s community health situation, diseases screened for, and testing machines used.  By completion, they have certification in Bloodborne Pathogens with extensive practice of each screening test and procedure.”

The group was founded by Reed and a local doctor, Opthamologist, Chittaranjan V. Reddy.  The organization came together quickly after its inception.  To Reed, the inspiration is that, “I’m in a special position where I can bring together the medical resources, motivated students, and healthcare organizations necessary to provide a wonderful, free service to Champaign County.” He mentioned the prevalence of diseases like Diabetes, Hypertension and High Cholesterol among the disadvantaged in the county and that, “By creating IMSS, I hope to alleviate this crisis by providing free services and by working with and promoting other non-profit healthcare organizations.”

In addition to Hope Community Health Center, IMSS is sponsored by a number of local healthcare-related organizations, churches, and educational groups including Provena Center for Healthy Aging , who helps fund the group. 

The group is especially grateful to Provena.  Reed commented, “As college students, it is hard to find the time to continually fundraise money throughout the semester.  Each event costs over $300 in materials and reagents, so we are extremely thankful for Provena’s generosity.  To put it in perspective, other for-profit screening organizations may charge an individual up to $250 for the tests we provide to cover overhead costs, lab work, technicians and nurses, and a physician consultation.”

 A list of resources was available at the screening I attended, as well as copies of Help Book, the comprehensive listing of local social services agencies. 

This screening was attended by a number of Spanish-speaking clients, and IMSS was ready for thisthere were at least two volunteers present who were able to converse with clients in Spanish.  IMSS often recruits Spanish-speaking volunteers from one of its sponsoring organizations, Aspiring Latinos in Medicine, another U of I student group, to help out as translators.

Client Ismael Sandoval, from Mexico City, said about IMSS, “It’s a good service; friendly.”  He found out about the screening by listening to Spanish Language radio AM 1460.  Sandoval has lived in the C-U area for eight years, and does light maintenance work for a campus apartment rental agency. 

Non-immigrant clients had good things to say as well about the organization.  Local resident Rose Adams told me that she came to the screening, because, “In a way, I’m worried about my health.  I don’t have a medical card; I can’t go to a doctor.  My sister just found out she had diabetes, so I’m worried about it myself.”  A friend told her about the service. 

Since last year, IMSS has held ten screenings, with approximately 10-20 served per event at a variety of locations including local churches, health clinics, and campus sites.  According to U of I volunteer Lacie Durand, who was in charge of the screening, “Certain locations work better than others.  If the word of mouth gets out, more people get screened.”  She feels that IMSS is “something a little different.  I haven’t seen anything like it in the area.”  She added that, “We’d like to show other campuses what we’re doing, so that they can implement their own programs.”  She plans to pursue a nursing degree once she completes her bachelor’s in Molecular Biology.

A client who wished to remain anonymous explained that she found out about the event simply because she happened to be at Salt and Light for unrelated reasons.  She said of the U.S. healthcare system in general: “It’s going to take a lot more people to work towards a national healthcare system.  If you have insurance, that doesn’t mean you can afford insurance.  It could be gone in six months.  It’s happened to me.” 

She said of IMSS in particular: “I think it’s a good idea to test people.  And it’s free.  It’s good that they’re advertising for people that don’t have insurance.  With free programs like this, it’s like insurance for people who don’t have insurance.”

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