By Erica Howell and Mindy Ayala-Diaz

No one could stop talking about the little boy who came through for his first school physical.

It was Aug. 2, and the Old Dominion University Primary Care Clinic at ODU Virginia Beach was conducting a school physicals and health screenings clinic. The boy had been in the country only a short time and didn't speak much English, but he clearly had a great time. Visiting the stations, he met Big Blue, collected stickers and excitedly learned English words. Oh, and melted a few hearts.

The clinic was part of Project I-Hear, an effort by ODU students and faculty from multiple disciplines to change the landscape in health care services. Carolyn Rutledge, director of the University's doctor of nursing practice program, said one of the goals of the project is to learn more about the disparities and barriers to health care in this region.

"Patients move here with no medical record, but schools and sports require a physical," she said. "There's no free clinic in Virginia Beach, so our clinic meets that unmet need for many patients. It also provides pediatric experience to our students. And it's fun! The hospital is not always a happy place, so this is a unique experience for the students, too."

Project I-Hear, which stands for Interprofessional Healthcare practice Education And Research, brings together ODU students and faculty from nursing, dental hygiene, communication disorders, physical therapy, mental health and human services.

The project was created in 2017, and in 2020 it received a $1.5 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The grant had three main objectives: meeting community needs for health screenings, meeting student needs with experience working in the community and creating collaboration among disciplines.

Students and practitioners have learned a lot from each other since then. They've also learned from the people in the Hampton Roads community who have fallen through the health care cracks.

At clinics like the one on Aug. 2, patients check in with students from the human services program, who act as intake/discharge coordinators, case managers, health care navigators and research facilitators. They guide patients upstairs where they check in with nursing. Afterward, a student leads them through the stations.

The first stop is physical therapy, where they receive a basic exam. Then an RN student takes their vital signs. Next come hearing and vision checks and - for patients under 8 - a visit with speech therapy student. Finally, patients learn about stress management, bullying, nutrition and exercise.

Although 28 patients registered for the August clinic, 39 were seen. Between the pandemic and required school and sports physicals, primary-care clinics have been overwhelmed.

This was the last school physicals clinic, but more health clinics are coming. HRSA has awarded an additional $4 million for the development of mobile health care services for rural and underserved populations in the region. This funding will allow for the purchase of a van outfitted with telehealth technology.

"The goal is to improve access for underserved populations, and to prepare ODU health professions' graduates for roles that truly impact health equity," Rutledge said.

The human services students got a taste of what human services professionals (HSPs) do across a wide variety of fields - case management, community outreach, social services, crisis intervention and client advocacy. HSPs help people navigate the health care and social services system by connecting them to community resources to ensure long-term, quality care.

The event "not only provided students with the opportunity to practice their helping, case management and resource-allocation skills, it further offered the opportunity to better understand the medical professionals they will be working with in the future as they support their clients' varying needs," said Jennifer Simmons, program director for the human services program and assistant chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Services. It was also a chance to observe the use of helping skills to ease clients' anxiety during their visits, she said.

The clinic left an impression on nursing student Kat Hernandez. "It has been fun!" she said. "This is a great hands-on experience before the real world."

Thomas McCall, another nursing student, agreed: "I don't know of a program like this outside of ODU."

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