As a biology student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I have had the privilege of experiencing a number of fascinating and unique courses, none more inspiring than the Underserved Medicine Seminar. The seminar, put on by the bright folks at Doctors Without Walls-Santa Barbara Street Medicine, sought to enlighten attendees to the medical plight of the underserved and also to provide the opportunity to become part of the answer.
Originally named simply Doctors Without Walls, the non-profit organization was founded by Drs. Mark Stinson, Sabina Diehr, and Noemi Doohan, motivated by the need for “local humanitarian medical volunteerism” in both acute and chronic emergencies. Supported by the international disaster response experience of Dr. Stinson, their program has involved coordinated efforts with the Santa Barbara County Medical Reserve Corps, as well as a disaster preparedness leadership course in honor and memory of Dr. Stinson and his legacy.
DWW-SBSM’s program for local medical volunteerism is based on the model used by Dr. Jim Withers in Pittsburgh with his organization Operation Safety Net, and seeks to aid the homeless and vulnerable populations of Santa Barbara. They provide assistance through a Women’s Free Shelter Clinic bi-monthly, where women are given free access to medical attentions, counseling, warm showers, and most importantly, a safe place to simply be. The addition of Santa Barbara Street Medicine to the NPO’s title in 2008 was quite fitting, considering one of its most recognizable gifts to the community comes in the form of its innumerable street rounds, wandering around Santa Barbara, looking for the most vulnerable individuals and providing free, medical care in what Dr. Jim Withers has described as austere medicine. These volunteer groups of coordinated medical teams operate at designated parks in Santa Barbara, and also roam the streets with backpacks full of supplies, in an attempt to find the individuals that weren’t able to reach the clinics. A great look into the street medicine component of DWW-SBSM was recently done by NPR, found here.
Their guiding principles are Advocacy, Collaboration, and Sustainability. Much like the medical frontiersman of Doctors Without Borders, advocacy means not only actively participating in the stories occurring daily on the streets, but in the telling of those stories as well. Education is a critical component of advocacy, which has allowed the latter two principles to function beautifully, and can be seen in the opportunities provided via the Underserved Medicine Seminar and leadership courses. DWW-SBSM was a founding member of the International Street Medicine Collaborative, a group of like-minded organizations committed to providing free, volunteer medical assistance to vulnerable populations. They are also collaborators with many local organizations, with their most prominent partner being a well-renowned aid organization, Direct Relief International. The importance of sustainability in aid work cannot be overstated, and DWW-SBSM is committed to providing sustainable solutions that can be applied both locally and nation-wide. By focusing on and assisting the most vulnerable populations within a community, DWW-SBSM has helped many individuals circumvent ER visits in favor of primary care providers, thus easing the burden on an already troubled healthcare system. Their website has many articles addressing such issues and while research has been done on the topic, it is uncirculated and undiscussed.
That needs to change.
To find similar organizations in cities across the United States and abroad, click here, or click on this Donations Page to help fund the amazing work going on at Doctors Without Walls-Santa Barbara Street Medicine. Organizations like this need to be supported by both our time and resources, because this is our future, and we need to begin actively participating in it. Good luck.
Photos courtesy of Doctors Without Walls-Santa Barbara Street Medicine.