Student management

With Free Health Clinic, Student Brings Health Care to Underserved in Rhode Island | News

Akosua Dankwah, DrPH ’22, is applying what she’s learned to help WTL Health Clinic expand its mission.

May 9, 2022 – On the day a ribbon was cut to mark the opening of the WTL Free Health Clinic at its new location in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in November 2019, Akosua Dankwah was holding half of the ceremonial oversized scissors. The event was the culmination of years of hard work led by Dankwah, who had spearheaded the project from its inception as a series of community health fairs held at his church, the International Empowerment Temple. Central Gospel Church in Pawtucket, until its new status. as an accredited facility for organized outpatient care.

But just four months later, Dankwah and his colleagues had to scale back their plans when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now, after two difficult years of volunteering hours of administrative work to help run WTL (short for “The Way the Truth and the Life”) – in addition to his demanding course load at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health – Dankwah is ready to move forward with her team’s vision.

Driven to serve

Dankwah emigrated from Ghana to the Midwest in his early twenties. After earning a degree in biology from Knox College and working as a phlebotomist and clinical research assistant, she moved to Rhode Island and began working as a clinical research assistant at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence. There and at her church, she met many underserved people in the area. Soon it became clear to her that many of them had difficulty accessing health care or were reluctant to seek it.

With the support of church leaders, she began to organize quarterly health fairs there for the community. She brought in local clinicians and other practitioners to perform health checkups, lead exercise classes, and give lectures on topics such as early childhood development, gender and health. Ebola outbreak that was raging in West Africa at the time. The events were popular, especially the high energy Afro Gospel Zumba classes.

But Dankwah and his team at the church wanted to expand the services they could provide in a health fair setting. “It was no fun not being able to do anything but screen someone. If you found something wrong and they didn’t have health insurance, there was nothing you could do,” she said. “And so we thought, if we were able to connect with all of these clinicians and resources in the community, why not take the next step and set up a free clinic?”

In an effort to learn all she could to make this happen, Dankwah began her Masters of Public Health program at Brown University School of Public Health in 2014. For her dissertation, she conducted a health needs assessment. health of the local African immigrant community. The results were published in 2017 in the Rhode Island Medical Journal.

She and her co-authors found that immigrants tended to be in poorer health the longer they stayed in the country. The people she interviewed had high rates of a number of chronic conditions, including joint and back pain and cardiovascular disease. They also showed high levels of stress, which she says could be due to their relatively low socioeconomic status and culture shock.

“It’s fast here, but we’re so laid back where we come from,” she told a Brown University publication. “And we’re very communal – in the United States it’s ‘every man for himself’.”

WTL Clinic was officially launched as a free, non-profit clinic after graduating in 2016, providing some primary care services. It started in the Dankwah Church and found permanent space the following year in Pawtucket. Dankwah led the effort, securing funds and volunteers, and handling important administrative steps such as incorporation as a nonprofit and obtaining malpractice insurance.

As she dedicated hours of volunteering, Dankwah found support and encouragement from members of her church. They even helped get the clinic off the ground with their donations. “I’ve seen a single mother who works two or three jobs donate a few dollars,” she said. “I have to honor that and do what I can to make the clinic a success.”

Resisting a pandemic, expanding care

Dankwah enrolled in Harvard Chan School’s DrPH program in 2019. Throughout her program, she applied what she learned to help WTL grow.

Just two months into her studies, WTL was licensed as an organized outpatient facility, expanding the range of primary care services she could provide. Dankwah reduced his involvement, but continued to devote time to tasks such as writing grants and coordinating student volunteers.

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, Dankwah and the rest of the clinic management opted to close the clinic to walk-ins, but still offered some services by appointment. In recent months, they have been able to start seeing patients for several hours every Friday. They offered COVID-19 testing throughout the pandemic and administered over 500 vaccines. Health services are currently provided by community and church volunteers, including Eugenio Fernandez, MPH ’16. Last November, the clinic earned a gold rating from the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics.

“Akosua amazed me with his dedication to making the WTL Clinic a reality while completing his doctoral program,” said Richard Bolton Siegrist, senior lecturer in healthcare management, who mentored Dankwah and supervised his work. on an independent study related to WTL. “She developed a plan, secured the necessary support and provided much-needed services to the community during a pandemic.”

During the summer of 2020, Dankwah worked with the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services Health Systems Transformation Project as part of the DrPH Program Field Immersion, with support of a Presidential Civil Service Fellowship from Harvard. The project changed how providers would be paid for processing Medicare payments. Dankwah helped translate the complex politics into language that would be more understandable to community organizations, and also started difficult conversations about racism and health inequities.

Following her summer fieldwork, she had the opportunity to continue working with the office on the evaluation and implementation of its racial equity plan and was awarded a Rose Service apprenticeship for support his work.

Now in her final weeks at Harvard Chan School, Dankwah is completing a thesis on how black church leaders can use their influence in their communities to address the opioid use disorder crisis. She also looks forward to working with her team to fully reopen the clinic and expand its services.

“We need more manpower and more resources, but we can do so much more,” she said.

—Amy Roeder

Photo: Kent Dayton