The original Volunteers in Medicine was founded on Hilton Head Island to provide medical care to low-income families who lived or worked on the island. The venture proved successful, and in about two decades, the nonprofit clinics numbered more than 80 nationwide, 10 of those in South Carolina.
The latest Volunteers in Medicine is mere miles from where the original was founded. The new clinic is in a cozy, 1,800-square-foot building off Bluffton Road near the post office. But it serves the latest ambitious attempt to provide medical care to those in need. It serves the Bluffton and Okatie areas and Jasper County.
It's just getting started, serving about 187 patients in about a month since opening, but, like most nonprofit groups, is still in need.
"We might seem well along," said administrator Jerry Binns. "But we're still at the beginning. We've got a ways to go."
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The Volunteers in Medicine model is pretty much self-explanatory -- it relies on volunteers. More than 200 medical professionals volunteer at the Hilton Head clinic, which started in 1994.
The Bluffton clinic now has about 60 volunteers, some with a medical background, including two physicians. Even if a volunteer doesn't have medical training, he or she can help in a variety of areas, including serving as a translator, entering data into the computer database or just greeting patients when they come in.
Volunteers in Medicine is like a primary care facility, so it needs doctors whose skills could lend themselves to those needs, in addition to nurses, pharmacists, social workers, nutritionists and others. Sometimes, just letting willing volunteers practice can prove tricky, Binns said. Retired doctors can practice, but a licensed doctor needs to be on site while the non-licensed doctor is there.
The clinic itself is largely a testament to community involvement. Laptop and desktop computers were purchased through the Hargray Caring Coins program, for example. Kids toys were given through BB&T. The list goes on. And while the clinic does have a wish list of items it needs -- ranging from mundane (copy paper and pens) to specific (unopened, non-expired and sealed pharmaceuticals in manufacturer's packaging) -- writing a check can go a long way.
"Cash is always welcome," said development director Jenny Haney.
Volunteers serve as the staff of the clinic, but a small team of paid administrators oversees it, including Binns and Haney. The clinic is looking for a full-time medical director to coordinate doctors and patient care and hopes to have one in place by the end of the year, Binns said.
The clinic is still expanding its range of services with plans to add a dental unit in the short term, and long term a vision center, mental health providers and expanded obstetrics and gynecology services. It has teamed with other agencies for services, such as the Hilton Head clinic for imaging and Coastal Carolina Hospital to contract lab services, Binns said.
Right now, patients come in for screenings Monday mornings and Tuesday afternoons, then get scheduled for an appointment later in the week. Binns figures demand will only continue to grow as more people discover it; by the end of the year he expects a patient list well beyond 200.
Nearly 44 percent of working adults in Jasper County are uninsured, and that number is about at 34 percent in Beaufort County, Haney said. Like the clinics nationwide, the Bluffton office can do its share to keep the community healthy.
"By providing primary care, we can keep people working, we can keep them out of the emergency rooms and we can keep insurance costs down for everyone," Binns said. "We can play a role in the economy."