When the homeless can't get to a doctor, these professionals take medical training to the streets

Phillip Palmer Image
Thursday, September 21, 2023
Local team brings medical care to SoCal's homeless population
When those experiencing homelessness can't get to a hospital or a doctor for medical help, these medical professionals take their training to the streets to offer life-saving solutions.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Life on the streets is filled with trauma. Our local emergency rooms are often overwhelmed providing care. However, insuring the homeless population follows through on a treatment plan is why MLK Community Healthcare launched its Street Medicine Department.

"Being able to prevent worse outcomes is what we're trying to do," said Sarat Varghese, medical director of Street Medicine at MLK Community Healthcare.

A lack of money, a lack of transportation, a lack of trust can sometimes make it very difficult for people who are homeless to recover from an injury or an illness, leaving them in some sort of health care abyss.

We spent some time with MLK Community Healthcare's Street Medicine team and found some scheduled care is as simple as providing food or bottled water, refilling prescriptions or taking blood pressure. Still, others could be suture removal or impromptu visits could be wound care or blood work.

"These guys. They helped me. Oh, gosh. They help me. They constantly come. The only people that's ever showed that much concern. I don't want to do this, but I trust them," said Gladys Cobb.

A team of four will schedule roughly 12 patient visits a day, and for them, caring for almost 200 people isn't simply the right thing to do, it's also cost effective.

In its first two years, the program has reduced emergency department visits by 3-5% for the homeless population while also reducing extended hospital stays that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"The homeless population is really in need of it, because they are not able to get the care that they need right now. So we can deliver care to them in their home. That's concierge medicine for them," said Varghese.

"Sometimes there's patients that say, 'Hey, my friend in the next tent needs help, can you please help them?' And so we'll do that," said Elsa Zecena, a nurse practitioner with the Street Medicine team.

Each visit builds a connection while rebuilding a patient's health. This is an important part of reducing the stress on hospital emergency rooms while also moving these patients closer to permanent housing.

"I've been in the hospital setting. I've worked as an ER nurse for many years and I've seen their hesitancy to trust us to let us do care for them," said Zecena. "So when we go to the street and they welcome us, it is very rewarding."

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