Free telemedicine links church and nursing students
By Lindsay Peyton
The University of Houston is preparing a new training facility for nursing students. Instead of the clinic being located on campus, or in an area hospital, however, it will be housed at St. Paul’s UMC in Houston’s Museum District. Professors and nurses from University of Houston will staff the clinic for the fall semester, and once it is up and running, the first group of students will step foot in the facility.
The clinic will offer services, free of charge, using telemedicine, the Rev. Andrew Wolfe, Associate Pastor of Congregational Care, explained “We don’t think it’s been done before,” he said. “It’s at least the first in Houston.”
Partnering with nursing students
When patients sign up for an appointment, nursing students will be their first interface, answering questions and coordinating medical records. Then a doctor will be waiting to visit the patient through a computer screen.
Student nurses will set up the technology and facilitate the exchange. “The nurse will be able to physically examine the patient to report to the remote expert,” Wolfe said. “If a follow-up is needed with a specialist, the clinic will be able to provide a referral.”
The clinic is designed to be a teaching tool for University of Houston nursing students. At first, basic health care will be provided, and the clinic will be open one day a week. There will be two exam rooms.
Wolfe’s vision is that the menu will expand over time. “Our goal is that every semester, we add a day to the clinic and then can add more services,” he said. “Hopefully, it grows as demand grows.”
Serving neighbors in need
Having a clinic on campus at St. Paul’s UMC, is a way to serve neighbors in need, Wolfe explained. “We can provide care to the most vulnerable in our society,” he said. “Taking care of them is more important than we may realize. It’s a basic right to get quality healthcare.”
Already the church houses the Emergency Aid Coalition (EAC), which provides assistance for basic needs of homeless individuals and low income families. Wolfe envisions the church one day earning a reputation as the place to go for accessible healthcare.
“My hope is that a family could come into the church to get groceries from the EAC, and then pop in to have a doctor’s appointment right there,” he said. “It can be a one-stop shop.”
Wolfe also foresees the church’s afterschool program, which is housed in the same building, making use of the clinic. “Kids could come in for their back-to-school check-ups,” he said. “Our goal is to provide care to families as well.”
The clinic has been a dream at St. Paul’s for years. “It went from an idea stage to a reality with full funding,” Wolfe said. “In the midst of a pandemic, this came together.”
Starting a collaboration
Wolfe had been searching for a way to enhance congregational care since he first moved to Houston in 2017. He and his wife Amanda moved from Bryan to Meyerland, a neighborhood in Houston that would be soon be decimated by Hurricane Harvey.
In fact, by the end of the couple’s first month in the city, they saw the terrible effects of the storm firsthand. In their own home, 4 feet of water pooled inside.
While he and his wife recovered within two to three months from the storm, others are still waiting to get back in their home. “It just highlighted all the cracks in society, opened up some wounds, and really made us think,” Wolfe said.
He began to brainstorm, and wondered, instead of focusing primarily on end of life, couldn’t he have a wider role?
“I wanted to create something that would affect every stage and age of life,” he said. “I go to the hospital and make visits, but what is congregational care doing for the rest of the congregation?”
He began having conversations with Interfaith Ministries’ Kim Maybry, who then was the project manager of the FaithHealth Initiative at Houston Methodist.
“She said, ‘Let’s do something for the community,’” Wolfe recalled. “And she started pulling strings.”
In 2018, the two attended the Texas Faith and Health Summit in Houston, where they learned more about the social determinants of health, all of the realities that can affect healthcare.
Wolfe was learning more about food deserts and lack of access to healthcare or transportation to medical facilities. “We were seeing all these disparities,” he said.
Still, his faith strengthened. “This was a small collective, a movement of people who care,” he said. “There were social workers, people in academia and the Department of Public Health.”
At the conference, Wolfe met Shainy Varghese, a professor at UH’s College of Nursing. “She had a passion and a heart for telemedicine – and wanted to do something to bring it to the U.S,” the pastor said.
Still, this was in 2018, before the pandemic, Wolfe explained. “It was before most people understood or had even heard of telemedicine,” he said.
Nonetheless, when Varghese started talking about her dream of one day opening a telehealth clinic, he jumped at the opportunity. The Abraham Station on St. Paul’s campus, a multi-purpose building, was only partially in use.
Originally, the building was an optometry office. All of the rooms were still there for eye exams and discussions with doctors. Wolfe described it to Varghese. “It was just the right size,” Wolfe said. “I was like, ‘We have a space. Let’s talk.’”
Opening the clinic
After Wolfe and Varghese began working on their vision, they still needed financial backing to make it a reality. “It sat dormant for almost two years. We needed funding, and it took time,” Wolfe said.
Then, the Humana Institute donated funds for medical equipment. Anonymous donors stepped up to cover the rest. Before long, Varghese was ready to start writing protocols and purchasing equipment.
Wolfe explained that UH and St. Paul’s share a common commitment. “Both of us have the primary goal to provide health care to under- and uninsured, specifically for the working poor,” he said. “We can utilize technology to provide access to healthcare in the midst of a pandemic to the working poor in our city.”
As a team, he believes the church and university can help move the needle on healthcare. “It’s such an incredible way to care for the community and to care for the congregation, to do it in a way connecting with UH and connecting with our neighbors,” he said. “It’s a major team effort.”
There is a three-year contract between St. Paul’s and UH to develop this as a pilot program. “The idea is that it can be assessed annually after that,” Wolfe said. “Our hope is that after three years, this could be replicated in other parts of the city.”
Churches often have unused space most of the week, he explained. “With telemedicine, you can put a clinic anywhere. There are just so many creative ways to make this work — and for the church to be a part of that, now that’s really cool.”
Not only will the facility allow a church to care for its neighbors and provide greater equity in healthcare but it also serves as a place to teach future medical practitioners.
And that feels like a Godsend. “It’s certainly providence — opening a clinic in the middle of a pandemic,” Wolfe said. “It’s a huge blessing that it’s happening now when people understand the need more than ever.”