Thanks to a new grant from the Worthington Regional Health Care Foundation (WRHCF), the clinic is likely to be around for many years to come.
WRHCF Executive Director Jeff Rotert presented OLG staff and board members with a ceremonial $ 20,000 check Wednesday, with the funds designated for telehealth equipment. The grant’s terms include $ 12,000 in funding for the current year, followed by $ 4,000 in 2022 and another $ 4,000 in 2023.
OLG Free Clinic now owns two iPads that are used for telehealth patients, and a third one will soon be purchased, clinic director Mariana Gutierrez said. These iPads have slightly different capabilities than others, however.
“We’ve been using them on Wednesdays when patients virtually see Dr. (David) Plevak,” Gutierrez said, referring to OLG’s medical director.
“There are capabilities where you can hook in for vitals and much more,” added Joe Anderson, vice chairman of the OLG Free Clinic board. “You can actually hear what the nurses hear; that’s really the perk here.”
Plevak, a critical care medicine specialist with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, explained more about the clinic’s telehealth technology and its importance to the clinic.
“When we started (OLG), our main way of caring for people was to hold large clinics and gather large numbers of people together,” Plevak said by phone Thursday. “That was very successful and helped engage a lot of the community, and helped out a lot of patients as they were able to see specialists from around the Midwest. That whole apparatus had to change with COVID because we’re really unable to get patients in large numbers together.
“We’ve been getting along by providing ongoing assistance and care with our Sanford Cooperative Association, and that’s gone along very well,” Plevak continued. “However, over the last year there have been times where me, as a clinician, can’t do things over the phone — I need to see things and hear things. The capabilities of the iPad allow us to see the patient and also communicate with audio, and allows us to carry on a communication in a secure manner that doesn’t violate any privacy laws.”
Plevak noted that OLG collaborates with a company that provides the software to operate the technology, and added that the WRHCG grant will allow the free clinic to advance it further.
“We’re going to be able to use a stethoscope and also an electrocardiogram monitor. … We’ll be able to read blood pressure, hear heart sounds and more, and I think it will give me a lot of information that will help me make medical decisions. As resources allow it and technology expands, we’ll probably be applying other devices to the system.”
Plevak stressed that telehealth is not intended to replace the traditional doctor/patient dynamic, but to supplement what it has now to improve and facilitate discussions between him and the Sanford cooperative team that meets with patients each Wednesday. He said OLG plans to resume offering its large in-person clinics at some point, but changes will be necessary as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Telemedicine is not just being used by myself, but we (OLC) are recruiting other specialists across the Midwest to use it also,” Plevak explained. “Say there’s a diabetic, for example. … I can have Dr. Ruiz, who is one of our volunteers and lives in Fargo, he can get on and give me his advice on what we should do. I also plan to have neurologists, cardiologists and mental health professionals — many of the people who have volunteered for us in the past — use this as well.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe Free Clinic, located at 921 Fourth Ave., was founded in 2011 through the efforts of the Rev. Jim Callahan, senior pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington.
Callahan and another priest learned through speaking with leaders from around the region that health care was a significant need for the many who can’t afford it.
“We heard a lot of people were using the emergency room as their primary physician,” Callahan said. “Soon, David (Plevak) came over here and saw 30 patients in a weekend and said he had to come back.”
Plevak has kept coming back, and now can serve the Worthington community without having to travel. It’s estimated the clinic has approximately 1,500 patients, as care is open to everyone within a 50-mile radius of Worthington who is uninsured and unable to afford health care.
The clinic’s board meets monthly and is a registered 501(c)(3) organization. Since it doesn’t take any federal money, the clinic operates exclusively through grants and private donations.
“We’re very grateful for the health care foundation’s donation,” said Bryan Hagen, chairman of the clinic’s board of directors. “This is the second time we’ve received money from them, and we’d like to develop an even greater relationship. This year has been a wonderful year for donations.”
“I see a great need for these services that we provide and we’re trying to help the patients holistically and culturally — besides medically — with the little resources that we have,” Gutierrez added. “Grants such as this make that possible, and we’re very appreciative.”
“We’re very thankful to the Worthington Regional Health Care Foundation for giving us the grant and we’re using it very well, I believe,” Plevak said. “The money is going to good use and people are going to get better because of it, and we greatly appreciate it.”