By Nicole Rodriguez-Robbins

This past June, I had the privilege of visiting Open Door Family Medical Center in Ossining NY and meeting the center’s dedicated staff.  Located a short ride away from Manhattan, off the Hudson River, Open Door feels far removed from the big city. The health center’s main building is situated across the street from the First Baptist Church, the site of Open Door’s humble beginnings. The health center began in 1972, when a group of community activists and volunteer doctors took action in response to the overwhelming need for medical services among the many uninsured residents in the town who couldn’t afford care. Together, they opened a volunteer-staffed free clinic in the church’s basement and offered care to anyone in need. This free clinic evolved into a federally qualified community health center which today has 9 sites and serves over 40,000 patients a year. Open Door was the first Ossining institution to not only provide medical care to working and poor people, but also to have a community-governing board, giving voice to local concerns.

CEO Lindsay Farrell and Development Director Desta Lakew described Open Door’s mission and the community it serves today. Initially the center served a population that was mostly African American. Over the past decade, Ossining has experienced a large influx of Latino immigrants. In response, Open Door has evolved to meet these changing cultural and linguistic needs. The center itself is a microcosm of the area; most of the center’s front-line staff is bilingual in English and Spanish and from the neighboring communities. The center offers much more than just direct health care services, and has developed a broad range of programs and services aimed at improving the health of the community as well as of the individuals it serves. As part of their family health program, Open Door offers prenatal yoga to expectant mothers. The center also maintains a community garden in town, offering free gardening and nutrition classes to children. Over time, the center has become the nucleus of the town and has had a hand in attracting residents and their families to the community.

Open Door’s extensive patient advocate program plays an integral role in ensuring that patients understand their plan of care and receive the necessary follow up. At Open Door, the advocate helps the patient navigate the complexities of the medical system. The advocate is responsible for educating patients about their best options for care and helping them access these services. In their role they connect patients to specialists outside the health center, help them apply for financial assistance when needed and call to schedule and monitor follow up visits and treatment. The advocate may also serve as a translator for patients whose primary language is not English. The advocate is essential in helping to identify specific cultural, economic and legal barriers the patient faces and ensuring that they overcome these barriers to accessing care. Desta recounted a moving story about a mother who recently came to Open Door for a routine post-natal exam with her newborn. During her check up, doctors discovered a breast lump and a biopsy confirmed a breast cancer diagnosis. The patient advocate guided the patient each step of the way through her diagnosis and follow-up treatment by translating the doctor’s diagnosis and instructions and helping her navigate the hospital visits and her treatment options. The patient eventually made a full recovery and her advocate played a crucial role in ensuring that she responded quickly to her diagnosis and received consistent and quality care during her cancer treatment. It is clear from this story how patient advocates play vital and often life-saving roles for their patients.  They are part of the enormous value that health centers provide; by identifying challenges and bridging gaps, they help ensure improved outcomes for their patients, the patients’ families, and their communities as a whole.