It's an affordable health care option that benefits both the patients and the providers. And it's available throughout South Florida.
The region's increasing number of medical schools are offering free and low-cost services to the public as a way to market themselves while giving their students hands-on experience. With one in four working-age residents lacking health insurance, the health fairs and clinics have never been more popular, said Dr. Mark O'Connell, a University of Miami professor who helps run several fairs each year.
"Patients used to be from the disadvantaged community," O'Connell said. "Now we're seeing the working middle class who don't have insurance or are under-insured."
On Feb. 18, third and fourth-year UM medical students will conduct a free health fair in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Under the supervision of faculty physicians, the students will perform pap smears, male rectal exams, and vision tests as well as test for osteoporosis, skin cancer, depression, sleep apnea and high cholesterol.
South Florida's newest medical school, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton , will hold a similar fair this fall, said senior associate dean Stuart Markowitz.
"It's a win-win situation," Markowitz said. "Patients get care provided by faculty or a licensed physician, with student attendants, who get the opportunity to see people who are ill, sometimes with significant diseases."
Take Joshua Gibbons, for example. Although employed as a baggage handler at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, he has no medical insurance.
So there Gibbons was last week in a dental chair at Nova Southeastern University's College of Dental Medicine, where fourth-year student Neil Singh fitted a crown on his lower left molar.
"I've been here five times now, and Neil has always done excellent work," said Gibbons, 29. "Everything is overseen by dentists and really checked out," he said.
Equally important, "it's cheaper than a regular dentist."
Gibbons is paying about $700 for a root canal and crown, a package that could cost up to $1,200 at a private practice.
In all, NSU runs 20 health care centers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties that last year provided services to 250,000 patients. Among the specialties: optometry, hearing and balance, psychology and physical rehabilitation. Nova also operates a pharmacy that is open to the public.
"We treat everything from colds to chronic disease," said Bert Whitehead, NSU's director of clinics. "A lot of people don't know about us."
Still, periodic health fairs and even low-cost clinics are no panacea for the millions of uninsured Americans. Nor are they a cure-all for those who don't regularly see a doctor.
Mary Pagana, a dental health educator for the Palm Beach County health department, said of free screenings, "As long as there is follow up and referral for people, there is no issue. But what happens when they don't have somewhere to refer that client to?"
During UM's Fort Lauderdale health fair, patients who need follow up will be referred to local health care centers that serve the under-insured at low cost. Patients are asked to sign informed consent forms that tell them they will be seen by students supervised by doctors.
For students, fairs and clinics are real-world laboratories. "I am always struck by how much hands-on experience we do get," said Sunil Keshwah, 24, a second-year medical student at UM and one of the organizers of the Fort Lauderdale fair.
Included in those hands-on experiences are procedures such as prostate exams. "That was probably the most memorable for me," Keshwah said. "The first time, I wasn't comfortable with it. The elderly patient was nervous. But after, he was grateful.
"Now I see it's like taking your temperature. It's a shame there is such a stigma to it."
The Feb. 18 fair, open to adults and children, is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Jack and Jill Children Center, 1315 W. Broward Blvd. No appointment is needed.
In Hollywood, Barry University has agreed to provide free student-run health care programs and screening for seniors as part of its lease agreement with the city.
In Florida, 3.8 million residents — more than one of five — were without health insurance in 2010, according to U.S. census figures. That included 24 percent of working-age Broward County residents, and 21 percent of Palm Beach County residents.
For patients, the cost of student-provided health care is the main draw. But Gibbons sees another advantage.
"I think they do a better job than regular dentist, who might just throw it in real quick," Gibbons said. "The students take their time to check everything. They are very thorough."
Indeed, time is part of the price of many student-staffed clinics. The work is checked at each stage by two supervising dentists and often takes longer than private office visit.
With 100 chairs, Nova's dental clinic is one of the largest university-run facilities in the U.S., and the technology