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Student Health Action Coalition provides accessible health care to the UNC community

Kevin Welch (first-year medical student), Darshana Panda (first-year medical student), and Ainesh Jain (Business Administration/Pre-Med '23) work at the check-in desk for the SHAC Medical Clinic on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

Student Health Action Coalition, also known as SHAC, is the first student-run free clinic in the nation and is devoted to providing the UNC community with accessible and high-quality health care.

SHAC is an interdisciplinary team made up of medical students, pharmacy students, nursing students and public health undergraduates. The team works together to serve patients in the general Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. 

There are various clinics within SHAC that provide specific services such as vision care, oral care, hormone replacement therapy, mental health services and OB/GYN care.

Taruni Santanam, SHAC co-director and UNC medical eeeestudent, said the clinic encourages and prioritizes serving uninsured and underinsured patients, but they are available for anyone who chooses to use their services. 

SHAC is run entirely by student volunteers, and Santanam said there are certain benefits to student involvement in the program. 

“I think having students be a part of SHAC’s mission is a nice intersection of service and education,” she said. “And we're happy to support both of those missions.”

Heather Shams, SHAC co-director and UNC medical student, said she works with the general clinic but there are others within the coalition. The biggest subdivision is Bridge to Care (BTC) which deals with chronic conditions like arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure. 

Other subdivisions include ophthalmology, mental health, gender-affirming care and a physical therapy clinic. They are also starting a new clinic called Healthy Living that is going to be focused on weight loss.

Santanam said that, while most of the medical service clinics are operated by medical students, SHAC collaborates with inter-professional schools for other services.

She also said as they are transitioning back to full clinics, SHAC is encouraging partnerships and revamping a lot of their clinics so they can provide more services. 

Additionally, Shams said there is a team of medical students and social workers dedicated to serving the social drivers of the patients' health needs. These services can include assisting in filling out charity care and unemployment forms and providing food.

Shams said SHAC has a subdivision named Flourish, which works to equip low-income individuals and families with the resources they need to make healthy meal choices. Flourish works with a food bank in Durham that coordinates weekly food donations.

SHAC has volunteers that pick up 10-14 boxes with perishable food like milk, yogurt, fruit and vegetables every Wednesday.

"It's available for all our patients, or even just community members," Shams said. "If we know a patient or community member that is food insecure, we tell them they're welcome to come by Wednesday and pick up a box for themselves or neighbors." 

Elizabeth Laska, the SHAC chief marketing officer, said the COVID-19 pandemic had various impacts on how the clinic operated. She said there was a time when the clinic was effectively shut down.

“We reopened Wednesday nights on July 3," Laska said. "Then we also operated telehealth services, which we're actually still doing here. And they're definitely prioritizing more in-person when we can just because it's a bit more holistic and a better approach to patients.”

Santanam said they had to change operations to adhere to the CDC guidelines but now they are ramping back up. SHAC will soon increase undergrad volunteer opportunities primarily by helping clinic flow — which is a role they had before the pandemic. She said there is a tab on their website that undergrads can click to find more information on volunteering. 

Laska said SHAC’s goal is to provide accessible health services to the local community who otherwise would not be able to receive them. 

“I think our goal there is to continue running and to hope that we can continue to provide these services despite what the world throws at us,” she said.

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