University of Houston clinic expands to offer eye care to homeless patients

On any given Monday or Thursday in downtown Houston, inside the University of Houston nurse-managed clinic, you can catch a glimpse of why nursing is called the "caring profession." The clinic, on the grounds of St. Paul's United Methodist Church, serves Houston's homeless community, drawing in patients from the Emergency Aid Coalition, an interfaith organization also located at the church. In the clinic, patients are examined, diagnosed and cared for – free of charge – by the UH nurses and nurse practitioners on staff.

The clinic, a rarity with approximately 250 nurse-run clinics in the U.S., opened in September 2021 to enhance healthcare access for the homeless and underserved population in Midtown Houston. Thus far, by running a tight ship – it is mission accomplished. Open two days a week from 9 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., the clinic manages to see 6-9 patients daily and has seen 530 community patients since opening. In short order, the clinic's offerings expanded in collaboration with the UTHealth School of Dentistry, to provide patients access to a monthly dental service.

Now, the UH College of Optometry has joined offering eye screenings and access to glasses for those in need.

It is important to care for all the members of our community and this nurse-managed clinic is a perfect way to expand on that mission. Poor vision can impact every aspect of our lives and can be a barrier to learning, social mobility, work, and even personal safety. Discovering eye health and vision problems early can change lives, especially for those with limited resources."

Michael Twa, Dean of the UH College of Optometry

While the clinic is crushing its goals to serve the community, it is also serving to provide interprofessional education.

"When students and faculty work together the care of individuals becomes more complete," said Kathryn Tart, founding dean and professor at the Andy and Barbara Gessner College of Nursing. We must have outcomes to show the impact that eye and vision care will make as we strive for models of care within communities. Nurse-managed clinics are a new model of care and interprofessional education helps our students understand how to work together into the future as healthcare professionals."
Homelessness is no small problem in Houston. According to Homeless Houston, 21,000 people sought homeless assistance in 2020. That doesn't count the hidden population – those who are homeless and do not seek help.

Shainy Varghese, professor of nursing, nurse practitioner and clinic director, had longed to help the homeless population since she arrived in Houston in 1993 and observed so many struggling people wandering the streets.

"I knew that we would have to go to the community, instead of the reverse. So, we are housed in an area easily accessible to the homeless and we are building trust with each visit," said Varghese. "Nurse-managed clinics are not too common, so we are also tackling the primary care shortage."

The clinic has not only improved the lives of patients but also touched the hearts of the nursing staff.

"Most of our patients follow up with us every 30 days which is wonderful. We get to know our patients and they know they can depend on us. This is the most rewarding experience I have ever had as a provider." said Carol Dwyer, clinical assistant professor and one of the nurse practitioner providers at the UH College of Nursing Health Clinic.

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