FOCUS-Rutgers Wellness Center Provides Collaborative Care for an Underserved Population

FOCUS-Rutgers Wellness Center Provides Collaborative Care for an Underserved Population

Nearly a third of patients are undocumented immigrants who traditionally turn to emergency rooms for care

The center serves as a training ground for students from social work, nursing and pharmacy to learn how to work as a team.
Inside the bustling FOCUS-Rutgers Wellness Center in Newark, the walls are covered with colorful murals painted by a group of Newark schoolchildren with a graduate student from the Mason Gross School of the Arts. Most of the patients here would not receive any medical or mental health services if the facility did not exist.

The center serves a mostly Spanish-speaking population and roughly 30 percent are undocumented immigrants who only receive care when it involves an emergency room. 

Marcello Diaz, a second year MSW student in the Rutgers School of Social Work, has been working 22.5 hours a week at the center since September and is supervised by Patricia Findley, associate professor. He relates that it has been eye opening to learn about the amount of trauma the patients have been through, from domestic abuse to homelessness.

“Most speak Spanish and the language barrier frequently prevents them from receiving mental health services," says Diaz, who provides case management to connect them with resources. "I listen to them, and it feels good when they leave here with a smile, even for that moment," Diaz says. "A professor who inspired my journey through social work education said that the most important aspect of treating a client is having that person leave the session with a sense of hope. I do my best to bring that concept to all my clients."

A coordinated collaboration of health care professionals from Rutgers School of Nursing, Rutgers School of Social Work and the Rutgers School of Pharmacy is in place to improve the health of Newark residents. A rotating group of students from these three schools participates in an unusually hands on clinical experience. Students, who are supervised by one adviser per school, care for up to 30 patients daily.

Common reasons for referral to the center include lack of affordable medical care, depression, asthma, hypertension and diabetes, and social issues such as food insecurity and housing issues. The center is also an official site of the Affordable Care Act, so patients can receive assistance to enroll in that program.

The center, established in 2012, operates with unusually high collaboration between the three groups, nursing, social work and pharmacy, providing quality care, teaching and research. Working in tandem, the teams have weekly meetings to discuss patient cases together, creating an interprofessional education that will serve them well in their careers. This “one stop shopping” benefits patients who can receive medical, mental, social and pharmacological care in one visit. The site has six examination rooms, two counseling rooms and laboratories.

Kathy Gunkel, the center’s director, says FOCUS provides invaluable experience to students in the School of Nursing, and a way to give back to the community.

“The center offers a team-based approach, bringing together staff members to consider all of a patient’s health issues, particularly those with multiple or chronic conditions. It is a huge growth experience for students, especially for nurses who serve so many roles in patient care,” says Gunkel.

She recalls a young mother who was referred to the center for treatment of a wound that would not heal. It turned out the patient had terminal cancer, and because of the language barrier, she had not fully understood the diagnosis at her other health care provider. FOCUS nurse practitioners worked on her medical care; pharmacists provided pain management, and social workers assisted in helping her prepare the family for her eventual passing.

At the FOCUS Center, pharmacy students participate greatly in the care of patients through medication therapy management, says Mary Wagner, associate professor of the Department of Pharmacy and Administration. She shared a letter from a former pharmacy student.

“Even from my first day, I felt like a valuable member of the interdisciplinary team.  Being exposed to direct patient care and feeling empowered to make a meaningful impact on a patient’s treatment plan was a truly gratifying experience.”

The center has been largely funded by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, and support from the Healthcare Foundation of NJ and the Horizon Foundation.

Contact: Beth Salamon
848-932-5340 or cell 908-217-7707