Free Clinic of Rome relies on telemedicine, lab tents to continue treating patients

The Free Clinic of Rome has seen its fair share of challenges throughout the pandemic, from a shortage of personal protective equipment to an increase of patients and low staff levels.

With many people losing jobs and having to fall back on unemployment, the free clinic has seen a great rise in patients seeking assistance.

Director Renee Blackburn said their numbers have gone up exponentially in the past months, well above their initial 2020 target of serving 4,000 patients in a year.

When the pandemic began back in March, Blackburn said, she knew things were about to change dramatically.

“Our first focus was simply the fact that, pandemic or no pandemic, a diabetic is still a diabetic and if you have hypertension, you still have hypertension,” she said. “So we still needed to be able to treat our patients, especially since their chronic diagnoses makes them more at risk.”

They started bringing their services outside the clinic to treat their patients. If patients were coming to pick up medication or diabetic supplies, a nurse would bring it to their car in the parking lot.

They also began using telemedicine, where the volunteer doctors and nurses video-call patients to check up on them.

“It was very comforting because they knew when they had a tele-appointment, that they were fixing to have a one-on-one conversation with a physician,” Blackburn said. “And during a pandemic, when everything is so scary and unknown, having 10 to 20 minutes of personal time to talk with a professional, that was something our patients really seemed to appreciate.”

In a few instances, when a patient relied on public transportation but couldn’t risk exposing themselves, the volunteer staff came to their homes for treatment and checkups.

However, telemedicine appointments only go so far and doctors need updated laboratory tests to properly treat patients. Through a small grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Rome, the free clinic was able to purchase a a plastic tent and set it up outside their office at 3 Professional Court.

“We set up outside and had lab draws in the tent outside so we can take care of patients without bringing them inside the building,” Blackburn said. “When each patient showed up, we would screen them for symptoms of COVID-19, take their temperature and ask them the questions and bring them to the tent.”

So far, they’ve served over 130 patients in the tent clinic.