Helping patients navigate an increasingly complex healthcare system

When she was working at the University of Alabama School of Medicine’s student run free clinic, Equal Access Birmingham, Schweitzer Fellow Sushma Boppana ran into a problem that has long confounded patients: navigating the “incredibly convoluted and difficult” process of getting appointments with specialty care providers.

“From finding a provider for colonoscopies to scheduling pap smears, it was hard even to make connections with preventative care providers,” said Boppana.

As a student at the University of Alabama School of Medicine (UAB) where she is in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MD/PhD), Boppana became more and more interested in figuring out ways to help patients connect with providers in our complex health care system. She turned that interest into a Schweitzer Fellowship project, and is now working with the Red Crescent Clinic of Alabama, where she is implementing a patient navigator program. The goals of the project are to improve patients’ use of existing community resources and to also improve the clinic’s care referrals.

When Boppana first approached them to guage their interest in the project, she learned that staff at the free clinic, which is run by the Birmingham Islamic Society and the Alabama chapter of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani-descent in North America, was looking for ways to improve their care referrals.

The first step Boppana took as a Fellow was to conduct a needs assessment with Red Crescent patients. One of the most common needs expressed was for preventative dental care, and in just a few short months, Boppana is making an impact. “Through my project and the hard work of clinic administrators, we have been able to set up a direct referral process with a local dental clinic and will be subsidizing the cost of these visits for patients expressing financial need,” she said.

Boppana expects that her project will be sustained beyond her Fellowship year because of her focus on building a lasting referral infrastructure at the clinic, as exemplified by the dental referral process that is now in place.

She credited the Fellowship with providing her yet another avenue to fully commit to a life of service in medicine and for opening her eyes to new ideas, information and experiences that will have a lasting impact on her career.

Boppana’s experience working to connect underserved patients in the Birmingham area to the care they need has heightened her concern about the overall lack of access to health care that exists across many patient planes. It has also shaped her thinking on how to remedy that problem.

“Currently, health care is treated as a privilege and those who fall within the gaps are left to fend for themselves in a system that is convoluted and fragmented,” said Boppana. “Personally, I would like to see a government option that provides basic coverage to everyone and creates real competition with private insurers and hospital systems.”