Free clinics are private, nonprofit organizations that provide health services at little or no cost to uninsured and underinsured people through the use of volunteer health professionals, community volunteers, and partnerships with other health providers. There are currently 77 free clinics in Washington, today and that number continues to grow.
Washington Healthcare Access Alliance (formerly the Washington Free Clinic Association) estimates that Washington free clinics served over 74,000 unique patients in 2015 alone. For more than three decades, providers and community members across the state have volunteered to form free clinics in Washington in response to community healthcare needs that are not met within the Washington health safety net. At a networking conference in late 2007, individuals representing 25 of these free medical and dental clinics determined that they needed a statewide association that would support networking, quality improvement and stability in free clinics. The Washington Free Clinic Association was incorporated in March of 2008.
Free clinics range from tiny, once-a-week evening drop-in settings to large multi-day, appointment-based clinics (in Vancouver and Kennewick, for example). What they have in common is that they do not charge for their services and they depend on the dedication and commitment of volunteers from the community - doctors, nurses, youth, retirees, professionals, businesspeople -- every contribution is important. These clinics are born of necessity, and quickly face challenges of service quality, record-keeping, volunteer recruitment, retention, and training, board development and of course, funding. In the absence of a structured regulating body, clinics have been able to provide truly grassroots care to those most in need, but have struggled to access resources and information relevant to free clinic operations. In accordance with its mission, the Washington Healthcare Access Alliance now has the opportunity to facilitate direct networking and resource sharing.
Starting a free clinic is a rewarding and community-strengthening experience. Though each free clinic is different, the common thread is that free clinics are a response to the needs present within a community and they are supported by the generosity and resources available within that community. In order to start a free clinic in your community, you will need to better understand both the need and the resources available. This section outlines the necessary steps to assess the needs of your community, make important community connections, navigate the process of starting a nonprofit and ultimately launch a free clinic to serve those in need.
You can make a meaningful contribution to your community by spearheading an effort to start a free clinic. From the first discussion to the day the clinic’s doors open to treat patients can take anywhere from 6-18 months. The length of time required to plan and start a free clinic largely depends on the time-commitment of the steering committee members, as well as the community response and the availability of clinical volunteers.
The following are the major benchmarks and tasks of any start-up free clinic. They are mostly sequential, though some activities will occur concurrently within different committees, and others will be ongoing tasks, such as fundraising and volunteer recruitment.