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Albuquerque Opportunity Center

Bringing Health Care to Where It’s Most Needed

Every Tuesday evening, a handful of students from the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center – future physicians, nurses, pharmacists and more – assemble at the Albuquerque Opportunity Center (AOC) to run a clinic for a special clientele. 

Providing for Albuquerque's citizens

The AOC occupies a converted warehouse and some portable buildings in an industrial district north of Downtown. A joint venture between the City of Albuquerque and a nonprofit called Albuquerque Heading Home, AOC offers overnight accommodations and some longer-term respite care beds for homeless men. 

Three-student teams, operating under the supervision of an attending health care provider, meet with men in small exam rooms and hear about their health care concerns. One patient might present with an infection, while another might need to renew his prescription for psychiatric medication. On occasion someone exhibits symptoms suggestive a heart attack.

The students can provide some care on their own and work to refer patients to the hospital or follow-up visits at a health clinic when necessary.

The AOC clinics are a godsend for men who otherwise lack ready access to health care – and who might otherwise wind up in the emergency department for a minor ailment, says clinic founder Cynthia Arndell, MD, medical director of care management services for UNM Hospital.

“It’s transformative for students and faculty and the residents, lives – it’s fantastic,” she says.

Pharmaceutical services

Students can avail themselves of a small pharmacy stocked with over-the-counter medications in treating their patients, Arndell says. “If the patient needs an antibiotic – something that needs to happen soon – we’ll call that in. We have some money set aside where the students can go and pick up that prescription that evening.”

The students get a chance to hone their clinical judgment while getting to know a segment of the population that they might not have encountered before. They also learn the power of bearing witness.

Healing through caring

“The healing behind listening to a vulnerable patient and treating them with dignity and kindness is very powerful,” Arndell says, adding that homeless people are accustomed to being avoided.

“Their perceptions of welcomeness and unwelcomeness are very powerful,” she says. “If they are treated with dignity and respect they are much more likely to seek health care when they need it and much more likely to visit a clinic on a regular basis.”

Ellen Hatch, an MD/PhD student in the School of Medicine who has volunteered at the clinic for five years, says it’s an “honor” to work with the men who staying at the shelter and a chance to influence some of the social determinants of health.

“I’m so moved by the gentlemen there – by their trust and their openness and the depth of their life stories,” she says. “It’s an intervention at the most vulnerable moments in people’s lives, where It’s as ‘upstream’ as you can get.”

The clinic also affords a rich opportunity for students from different health care disciplines to interact with and learn from one another, Hatch says. “It’s an educational experience unlike what we can get in the classroom,” she says.

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