A new, exciting project helps rheumatology professionals bring rheumatology care to underserved populations by connecting them to available volunteer opportunities. The Volunteers to Expand Rheumatology Access (VERA) initiative works to establish a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities to provide care for underserved rheumatology patients. The pilot phase of the project will be implemented first in the northeast United States to explore needs, opportunities, and barriers to establishing a resource that can be used by rheumatologists across the country.
The project was proposed by Drs. Liana Fraenkel and Rob Shmerling, who are leading the effort with support from the ACR through the Collaborative Initiatives (COIN) department. In August 2018, the ACR put out a call for letters of interest to find interested and dedicated ACR/ARHP members to participate on the project’s taskforce. The charge of the taskforce is to guide the project, starting by conducting a needs assessment (to determine the level of interest among members, the breadth of currently available opportunities, and the feasibility of providing volunteer rheumatology care) and evaluating the sustainability of the project after its development year.
There are a significant number of patients who have inadequate access to specialty rheumatology care, and it is anticipated there are rheumatologists who are interested in providing volunteer medical care to these patients, but are not aware of opportunities to do so. Both currently practicing rheumatologists and those who have retired yet wish to stay active and meaningfully contribute to patient care may wish to seek volunteer opportunities. Furthermore, trainees who are interested in pursuing a career in rheumatology may welcome the opportunity to work with practicing rheumatologists while providing volunteer care. Connecting rheumatologists and trainees to volunteer opportunities provides numerous benefits, including:
- Rheumatology fellows have an opportunity to gain experience from rotations in underserved areas
- Medical students and residents who are interested in opportunities to care for medically underserved populations can shadow a volunteer rheumatologist while providing care in underserved areas
- The time and effort typically involved in searching for and selecting volunteer care opportunities are reduced by cataloging them in one central location
- Members who are passionate about improving care received by underserved populations have an opportunity to be involved in an initiative that aligns with the ACR’s values in supporting patient access to care.
Upon successful completion of the pilot year of VERA, the taskforce aims to develop a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities to support ACR/ARHP members who wish to volunteer their time. Over time, the project may lead to an increase in the amount of volunteer care given to underserved patients in the U.S. (through in-person and telehealth opportunities). This project may also provide support to primary care providers who care for underserved populations by connecting them to volunteer rheumatologists (through in-person, telephone, and online consults).