As Greater Phoenix’s population continues to grow, so does the challenge of providing accessible, holistic health care for people experiencing homelessness.
UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix students Justin Zeien, MPH, and Jeffery Hanna, MPH, MSc, co-founded Street Medicine Phoenix (SMP) in May 2017, after hearing about similar programs serving vulnerable populations in other cities across the country.
“Phoenix is one of the largest cities in the United States, yet we didn’t have a program like that here. Why not? So we did some research and decided we should start one,” Zeien said.
SMP’s mission quickly came into focus – to ensure access to quality health care for the homeless population living and sleeping on the streets of Phoenix.
Zeien is now a third-year medical student, and Hanna completed a master’s degree in clinical translational sciences at the College of Medicine – Phoenix last year. They each have a master’s degree from the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. “Being able to collaborate with students from different disciplines is important,” Hanna said. “It’s the way you’re going to be practicing throughout your career.
SMP emphasizes interprofessional collaboration and welcomes medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health and allied health students and faculty members from UArizona Health Sciences as well as Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and Midwestern University. Last year, the crew conducted 38 outreach events, called “street runs,” in downtown Phoenix, where teams completed 650 health screenings and provided 135 referrals to community resources. They also provided HIV tests and flu shots.
The patient interactions, overseen by a graduate student or faculty mentor, are beneficial for both patients and students.
“I think a lot of stigma can be associated with underserved populations,” said first-year College of Medicine – Phoenix student Sara Yee. “When I first started with Street Medicine, I came with a lot of assumptions, and probably a lot of judgment. Hearing patients’ stories and how they came to be in their situation helps me expand my perspective.”
SMP continues to focus on solutions to address social determinants of health as homelessness in the Phoenix area approaches a crisis point. Hanna and Zeien envision utilizing telemedicine technology on the streets and expanding the program to include dental and law services. They also are working with similar academic-based outreach programs across the country to develop a curriculum to equip students to care for people experiencing homelessness using a patient-centered approach.
At its core, SMP’s success stems directly from a student and patient forging a connection. "Each patient’s story provides context for care,” Zeien said. “You just have to be willing to listen and understand their point of view.”