In the early 1990s, Jack McConnell, M.D., was struck by the number of poor individuals who had no access to health care on Hilton Head Island, S.C., where he had retired.
One in three of those who live in the coastal town don’t have health insurance, a level about twice the national average. But the town is also filled with retired medical personnel who flock to Hilton Head for its beautiful beaches and golf courses.
With that in mind, McConnell, who had grown restless in retirement, helped to found Volunteers in Medicine, a free clinic. McConnell — who, in his employed days, worked for Johnson & Johnson and is considered one of the developers of Tylenol — would frequently see the disadvantaged hitchhiking across Hilton Head, and he came up with the idea of leveraging other retired doctors to care for the uninsured. McConnell died Feb. 6 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.
What started as a charitable, walk-in clinic that served 1,000 patients in its first year on Hilton Head Island has grown to handle 30,000 visits annually across 23 medical specialties including dental and behavioral health. It’s amassed more than 600 volunteers who donate 52,000 hours of service annually. And this year, Volunteers in Medicine celebrates its 25th year on the island.
Since that first clinic opened, Volunteers in Medicine has inspired 96 namesake clinics to open nationwide in such communities as Lakeland, Fla., and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The clinics share only a name and guidelines created by the VIM Institute, which began about 10 years after the first clinic’s creation.
For a clinic to open in any geographic area, says Ginger Allen, director of development, there must be enough willing volunteers. “Hilton Head is the perfect environment because there are so many retirees here,” she says. “It is often misperceived as a wealthy area, but in reality it’s not.”
“The patients we serve, about 70 percent of them are employed,” Allen says. “From that group, they’re mostly employed in the tourism and hospitality industry on the island. They might be hotel workers, landscape workers, golf course maintenance, anyone like that who might be working at low wages and not receiving benefits.”
VIM annually screens patients to ensure eligibility, which requires them to live or work on Hilton Head or Daufuskie islands and be at or under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. About 70 percent of visits are scheduled with more than a dozen physicians working out of 18 operatories daily, with nurses, screeners, interpreters and record-keepers all working alongside as volunteers.
Patients give back to VIM by providing upkeep in the form of landscaping, painting and cleaning.
“We conservatively save our [local] hospital about $2.5 million annually in uncompensated medical care, and they would agree with that,” Allen says.
While not in a position to speak about specific numbers, Dana Eisenberg, emergency department case manager and Healthy Outcomes program manager at Hilton Head Hospital, says the clinic is “essential” and a “wonderful resource,” especially in regard to the Healthy Outcomes program developed by the state to assist high-risk patients who lack insurance and need help navigating the system and seeing a primary health care provider. For this, Eisenberg works closely with VIM on a daily basis.
“They have all of the subspecialists that I need; they have the ability to do mammograms; they have the ability to do labs,” she says. “They’re the largest and have been around the longest. Because of that, my ability to triage patients to them is very easy.”
VIM can perform minor surgeries but, for anything outside of its capabilities, the clinic has a surgical donation program in which it works with practicing physicians in the community to negotiate surgery at vastly reduced rates, according to Allen. Patients also pay what they can.
The nondispensing pharmacy at the clinic managed nearly 19,000 prescriptions last year with a retail medical value of more than $6.7 million, but VIM paid only about $38,000. VIM works with groups like the Dispensary of Hope, which distributes pharmaceuticals to charitable clinics.
McConnell is survived by his wife, three children and seven grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to VIM Clinic, P.O. Box 23858, Hilton Head Island, SC 29925.