Accessibility Comes First for New Health Clinic in Humboldt Park

By Kevin Cosgrove

On a rainy day in August, a group of Access Living staff was given a tour of the Mile Square Health Clinic in Humboldt Park, Chicago. Access Living had been working to help open this clinic for a number of years and the tour felt like something of a celebration.

The brand new federally qualified clinic was designed from the outset to specialize in treating patients who have disabilities. From one room to the next, the Mile Square staff described accommodations ranging from wheelchair-accessible scales to a moveable wheelchair lift to a layout designed to maximize efficiency of flow from one room to another. The space joins three former storefronts into one renovated building with wooden floors and spacious corridors. The building retains a welcoming sense of familiarity that aligns with the staff’s philosophy of patient-centered care.

“We get to know the patients. When you come here, you’re not just a patient, you’re a person,” said Barbara Shaw who is a family nurse practitioner at the clinic. “You’re somebody we want to get to know because health is more than you’re physical body or your mental health; it’s the community you live in; it’s the problems you’re having at home; it’s the culture you feel connected to; it’s the foods that you eat in that culture that you’re connected to. All of that is together.”

The clinic is a nurse-managed facility with a dedicated small staff. Discussing the features of the clinic, Shaw was joined by Mary Bauer, who is a midwife and Emily Brigell, who is a nurse and Director of Nurse-Managed Clinics for University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Nursing.

Brigell said that she oversees affiliated Integrated Health Care clinics that specialize in treating patients with psychiatric disabilities. The idea behind those clinics was that integrating mental health services with primary care services would lead to a greater range of access for overall healthcare. That idea remains in place at Mile Square (staff members also have backgrounds in working with patients with mental health disabilities), but the mission of the clinic has been expanded to emphasize access for patients with physical disabilities as well.

Brigell also said that, while Mile Square has not yet started collecting data, it carries a proven track record over from the other clinics she oversees. “We’re very good at evaluating our care [at the Integrated Health Care clinics] - looking at customer satisfaction, but also looking at our clinical outcomes,” Brigell explained. “For the other clinics, our outcomes are really good. We serve a lot of people with diabetes and […] we’re achieving really good scores compared to the benchmarks that are out there.”

The genesis of opening up the Humboldt Park Mile Square clinic can largely be traced to the closure of a different health clinic that left an unmet need. “There was a women’s clinic at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and then [it closed down] and there really felt like there was a need for accessible care,” Shaw said, “particularly gynecologic care and women’s care for women who had difficulty getting on a table or often times just the basic preventative care is not accessible to women in wheelchairs or with psychiatric issues.”

Shaw continued, “Because of the lack of accessible care particularly for women with disabilities, there was a real push from Access Living who contacted the [UIC] College of Nursing and worked together for a period of years to try to get this clinic together.”

Thanks to those years’ worth of work and contributions, including a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the clinic is finally operational. The Humboldt Park location – 3240 W. Division St. – places the clinic in an area determined to be a target area of need. Brigell and Shaw said that the Humboldt Park neighborhood has a high percentage of residents with disabilities and the new clinic will be an essential resource to the community.

“Sometimes people will go somewhere and they’ll say it’s accessible, but it just means you can get in the door,” Shaw said. “It doesn’t mean that once you get in the door they’ll take the liability for getting you lifted onto the table. That’s the problem. So we have a really good lift. People have been trained in it and people have been trained in different disability issues.”

Shaw, who emphasized the need to relate to people within the community on an individualized basis, also speaks Spanish and is learning American Sign Language to help her communicate with Deaf patients (though she stressed that there would always be an ASL interpreter for patients with hearing disabilities who use sign language). The clinic is open to people of all genders with or without disabilities, but Shaw said she wants people to know that Mile Square consists of staff with unique specialties that make quality care more available to people who might otherwise be underserved in terms of their medical needs.

“I really get passionate and kind of annoyed and upset about people not getting what they need for easily remedied situations.” Shaw said. “So I am really happy to be here because it’s kind of new for us to be able to provide the complete range of care for people who [have all sorts of] disabilities. We want to be a place where anybody […] can feel comfortable coming.”

“We want to make changes that are positive,” said Bauer – one of the clinic’s midwives (the clinic offers a variety of delivery choices such as water births that are not always readily available otherwise). “What might work for one woman might not work for another woman. And that, I think, is the beauty of my whole group of midwives is that we really address the woman - where she’s at and what her specific needs are.”

As a new clinic, they expect to have more patients coming in regularly in the future, but they have already gotten off to a solid start and Brigell said there were 100 visits to the clinic in July alone. There is a grand opening event planned for October 6, at 1:30p.m. to open the clinic’s doors to the public and let people tour the facility. There will also be comments delivered from some of the people involved with the clinic and people from the community.