According to The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, 31 million Americans are expected to remain uninsured into 2024. To meet the growing need for affordable health care, free clinics have spread throughout the country and can provide a variety of services including medical, pharmacy, vision, dental or behavioral health. If you are interested in opening a free clinic, understanding resource hurdles can help you plan ahead and allow you to start helping your community with greater ease.
Research and Planning
Assess the needs of the community by collecting data from local organizations that help the needy and government data from hospitals and the U.S. Census. You can also call local hospitals, social services agencies and religious organizations to ask their opinion on the greatest unmet medical need for low-income patients. Gather a committee of people in your area to assist in organizing a free clinic. Use this steering committee to make important decisions such as determining what services to provide based on your research and who would and would not be eligible to receive these services.
Human and Medical Resources
Seek funding for medical supplies and personnel through government grants, from community members through direct requests for donations and events to raise money, or from anyone online through crowdfunding websites. Determine how much of the staff must be volunteer depending on the amount raised. To cut down on costs, The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics recommends starting your clinic with a small staff and expanding it as your clinic grows. The association also recommends obtaining medical and office supplies by making a request in the "wish list" in the nonprofit section of the classifieds, seeking donations from supply companies, asking volunteers where they get their donated or discounted supplies, and by asking hospitals to put the word out to their vendors about what you are seeking.
Insurance and Legal Issues
When hiring volunteers for handling patients, make sure they have the proper credentials, licenses and educational background because malpractice and charitable immunity legislation requires a physician’s license to be verified. Although there is a federal law protecting volunteers from malpractice lawsuits, also check local laws to help ensure the safety of your staff. Purchasing malpractice insurance can also protect volunteer workers and physicians. Asking your staff if any of them already have insurance can prevent double insurance complications and costs. Filing for 501(3) status can reduce your paperwork and provide greater financial freedom. If the application process for 501(3) status is too tedious, consult with an attorney who specializes in nonprofit work to determine if it is right for the size and nature of your operation.
Marketing and Support
The first group of people you will need to market to are potential workers. The National Association of Free Clinics recommends recruiting volunteers by communicating with your peers or by asking medical professionals and hospitals if you can set up a recruitment booth. The group Volunteers in Health Care offers two free manuals that offer advice on how new free clinics can recruit and retain volunteers. These manuals can be obtained through the mail by calling them or directly from the group's website (see Resources). Getting the word out to the community about the new clinic can be achieved by reaching out to community organizers, local hospitals and church congregations. Gaining community support and awareness can also be gained with informative ads and free community events.
- University of California, San Diego: Department of Medical Education: UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project: Start a Free Clinic
- National Association of Community Health Centers: So You Want to Start a Health Center? A Practical Guide for Starting a Federally Qualified Health Center
- The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics: Resources: Infographic
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images