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Caring for the forgotten

In addition to providing health assessments for the homeless, Dr. DiBaise (center) and her PA students implemented a smoking cessation program at a homeless rehabilitation facility in downtown Phoenix.

Homelessness is a major concern nationwide. On the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, the homeless population is estimated at 6,000. These individuals and families experience homelessness for different reasons, and for many, the situation is temporary. For others, especially those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues, homelessness is a chronic problem.

ATSU-ASHS faculty member Michelle DiBaise, DHSc, PA-C, ’14, dedicates much of her time to helping the homeless in downtown Phoenix. She works with a variety of healthcare providers and other volunteers to improve the health of this population. She also works to change perceptions of homelessness through her students in the Physician Assistant Studies (PA) program.

“This population needs our help and understanding,” says Dr. DiBaise. “There’s a lot of misperception of the homeless, like who they are and how they got there.”

Dr. DiBaise’s involvement with the homeless began prior to earning her doctorate at ATSU. She was a faculty member for the PA program at Northern Arizona University (NAU) when a colleague from Arizona State University (ASU) asked if she would like to help establish a free clinic for the homeless. Immediately, Dr. DiBaise volunteered.

After three years of meetings with stakeholders and bringing in more partners, the clinic opened in June 2015. The student-led, faculty-guided clinic, called Student Health Outreach for Wellness (SHOW), became a partnership among ASU, NAU, and the University of Arizona. SHOW provides free health and wellness services to the homeless and other vulnerable populations.

In the process of developing SHOW, Dr. DiBaise learned about Crossroads, a transitional facility for the homeless undergoing substance abuse rehabilitation. At the time, Crossroads operated five facilities in downtown Phoenix. When patients came to these facilities, they were required to have history and physical exams and tuberculosis tests within seven days. The Grand Canyon University (GCU) Community Nursing program provided these intake tests, but it was unable to cover the facilities during university breaks and holidays. Dr. DiBaise and her students volunteered to help provide coverage. The partnership was mutually beneficial, as Dr. DiBaise’s students gained clinical experience and the patients were able to receive health assessments year-round.

In May 2016, Dr. DiBaise joined the faculty at ATSU-ASHS. She was concerned NAU would not continue the Crossroads program without her, so she was thrilled when the School agreed to let her continue the program at ATSU with her PA students. The cost savings provided by volunteers from ATSU and GCU allowed Crossroads to open a sixth facility.

“It’s great for the students because they get a peek into substance abuse rehabilitation,” Dr. DiBaise says. “They see the face of addiction and the volume of the problem we have in the Valley.”

Many of Dr. DiBaise’s students find their passion for serving the underserved when they provide care for the homeless. Students participate in the program initially because it is required, but after their first experience, they seem to keep volunteering. This fall, she plans for her students to be involved with SHOW as well.

“The homeless are the forgotten population,” she says. “The gratitude you get when you care for people in such great need is just amazing.”

Image above: In addition to providing health assessments for the homeless, Dr. DiBaise (center) and her PA students implemented a smoking cessation program at a homeless rehabilitation facility in downtown Phoenix.

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