Volunteers in Medicine

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1994

In 1994, retired physician Jack McConnell, best-known as the developer of Tylenol while a researcher at Johnson & Johnson, had the idea of recruiting other retired doctors and nurses to serve, at no charge, the medical needs of poor people living in the area of Hilton Head, South Carolina. Soon, there followed a national organization dedicated to helping local volunteers start similar free clinics all across the U.S. Volunteers In Medicine, based in a small office in Burlington, Vermont and operating on a modest $250,000 annual budget, has provided the model and management guidance for 96 free clinics (and counting), in a riot of locations: Red Bank, New Jersey; Dunlap, Tennessee; Monroe, Michigan; Springfield, Oregon; inner-city Baltimore; Farmville, Virginia; Indio, California.

Much of the care is targeted toward those with chronic conditions—diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular and gastro-intestinal problems—with the aim of preventing these long-term afflictions from debilitating their victims. Many clinics also provide vaccinations (especially for children) and dental services, which are not covered by public programs like Medicaid, but which have been increasingly shown to have consequential medical effects. Patients include a broad cross-section of immigrants and low-income persons who despite qualifying for Medicaid have difficulty actually getting access to medical care.

Without a central management structure or government funding, these valuable clinics have emerged via strong community support. The staff in Burlington have no mandate or goals for opening new clinics, and they don’t own or operate any. They simply aid local “champions” who ask for their expert assistance. Before any local “champion” is allowed to use the VIM name in launching a clinic, he or she must first put together a committee that “represents various constituencies in the community—people of influence, including within the medical community,“ as VIM director Amy Hamlin puts it.

The free labor of 11,000 medical professionals and associated volunteers drives these facilities, while donors cover building rents, lab charges, support staff, and medication costs. The end product is a half-million annual patient visits, worth tens of millions of dollars to the beneficiaries—all produced (as of 2011) at a modest per-visit philanthropic outlay of $316, including all medication and lab work.