The 2-year-old effort acts as a preliminary step, Patel said, toward giving those without a home access to regular health screenings and resources. She saw a need in Athens to focus on the health care needs of homeless individuals.
“It’s disheartening to hear people being scared to reach out, out of fear of losing personal relationships or it further harming their situation,” Patel said. “Our aim is to create an environment where individuals feel secure and supported.”
The group’s efforts include raising awareness about the risks associated with cardiovascular disease, conducting screenings to detect potential heart health issues and connecting individuals to resources. This year, the club expanded into screening for mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
The 100-member club has held three blood pressure and mental health training sessions since August and three screening events, with plans to hold two more screenings before the end of 2023. With each screening, they have helped an average of 10 people.
By making health screenings more accessible, the group’s mission also ties into Patel’s larger goals in the medical field.
“If you go to a doctor, and they provide you with medical care, that is a very unique way to impact someone’s life. I see that as leaving a unique imprint on that individual,” Patel said.
“I’d love to make that impact on people’s lives.”
Studies say that heart disease is a leading cause of morbidity among people without housing due to risk factors like stress, minimal food choices and limited access to health facilities.
“Things like high blood pressure, it’s not taken very seriously,” Patel said. “So, we just want to make sure that we make individuals aware of the symptoms, aware of what can cause it, and lifestyle changes that they can make.”
Patel’s attention was drawn to this issue in winter 2020 during the peak of COVID-19. She saw news stories about mass job layoffs and evictions that created a rise in homelessness and realized that the numerous efforts toward aiding individuals without homes still fell short in meeting medical needs.
She browsed online and found Hearts for the Homeless International, an organization that had its first chapter at the University of Central Florida. Patel launched H4H’s Athens chapter by identifying and contacting homeless shelters and health care providers, which she said posed a significant hurdle because of COVID-19 protocols that limited communication and in-person visits.
In fall 2022, Patel secured a partnership with Bigger Vision of Athens, a local shelter. This consistent access point to people without homes in Athens gave the club a place to conduct monthly screenings, have one-on-one conversations with individuals to point them to available resources, and distribute hygiene kits and snack packs. Subsequent partnerships with Mercy Health Center and the Athens Nurses Clinic expanded H4H’s efforts.
The club also creates opportunities for any student, medical school-bound or not, to build skills interacting with underprivileged populations and to understand the human side of medicine. These real-life experiences include receiving professional training on taking blood pressure, identifying mental health concerns, and performing first aid and CPR, which they use during the screenings.
Riza Khan, a second-year biology major who serves as vice president of H4H, emphasized Patel’s approach toward making H4H a safe and effective learning environment.
“She doesn’t make you feel like you’re asking her too much, or that you should already know this by now,” Khan said. “I’ve never felt nervous to ask her for help on anything.”
Patel, who turned over her role as president in the fall to serve as the chapter’s adviser for her final undergraduate year, is also assistant director of medical education for H4H International. She said she hopes to contribute to the organization’s mission for as long as she can.