Prescriptions and Policy in the Free Clinics

Note: This article was originally published as part of the Q4 2019 issue of the WFCC Newsletter and is reproduced here with permission. See original:

Part of human nature is to make assumptions about others. This cognitive heuristic, while somewhat valuable in the past, now simply perpetuates ideals that are no longer relevant to modern society. When analyzed from the collective perspective, that is, by looking at systematic prejudices in institutions and professions, we can begin to tease out the less visible, but often more subversive prejudices that impact people at the population scale. This is particularly true in medicine, where the impacts of these institutional assumptions disproportionately harm those who we seek to help in the free clinics.

In this piece, I want to examine the prescription policies in place at the free clinics and invite discussion about the various factors in play. With that said, this is only a first step in addressing this complex issue rife with nuance. No amount of standardization can remove the necessary professional judgement of physicians and healthcare providers, but this may be an area where healthcare policy can make a tangible impact in patient care for the uninsured patient population in greater Worcester area.

The standard protocol encourages providers to prescribe the minimum necessary amount of medication. In practice, this often results in common chronic disease prescriptions being written for 30 days during the first visit, bumped up to 60 days on a following visit, and a maximum of 90 days on all subsequent visits. This procedure is grounded in real concerns – most prominently the potential for prescription abuse. However, it leaves the most vulnerable patients in limbo.

Uninsured or underinsured patients suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension, are often the ones that have the most challenges associated with physically accessing prescriptions. Lack of transportation and difficulty taking time off from work during working hours are primary contributors to patients skipping their medications, along with insufficient funds to cover the prescriptions. These diverse issues cannot be solved without a large scale political effort and potentially restructuring the entire employment scheme. Regardless, being aware of these fundamental issues is vital to effective policy proposals on the part of the Coalition and the individual clinics.

Providers are rightly concerned that patients can game the system, traveling from clinic to clinic to obtain duplicate prescriptions, especially in light of the opioid epidemic. Despite this, a more benign, yet potentially even more subversive justification for the policy is the idea that the clinics are simply stop-gap measures rather than primary care facilities and provide care to any person without question.

On the face of it, the answer is simple: the clinics are not, in fact, primary care facilities. A better analogy might be that of urgent care centers, but even this falls apart because the clinics do not have the staff, equipment, or funding to address more serious illnesses. The clinics are simply not equipped to provide the long term, personal care that is required of a primary care facility, nor are they equipped to provide immediate care for the types of injuries and illnesses that urgent care centers treat. Patients inevitably still end up using the clinics for both primary care and urgent care.

Keeping in mind these conflicting messages, that the clinics provide care to anyone without question, and that they are neither primary nor urgent care facilities, updates to the standard operating procedures need to be made to better address the dichotomy. Without these changes, patients will remain in limbo, especially those looking for long term prescriptions for chronic illnesses.

Currently, 28.2% of patient encounters at Epworth result in the patient receiving one or more written prescriptions. A full 10.1% of patients arrive at Epworth seeking prescription refills. Providing prescriptions that take into account patient transportation challenges may be addressed by, for example, encouraging prescribing physicians to ask patients about the accessibility of prescriptions.

Another suggestion might include updating the standard operating procedures at the clinics to enable cross referencing of prescriptions, especially for some medications that are more prone to abuse. This does not reduce the importance of professional judgement, but rather reduces biases and provides objective measures that can ultimately lead to better patient care. An even more ambitious solution, but one that might address a larger range of the issues that the uninsured and underinsured population faces, is creating a mobile pharmacy that travels to each of the clinics. Patients can pick up their subsidized prescriptions immediately, while they are already at the clinic without need of further coordination. Even just having pharmacists available to discuss prescriptions during sign out may be immensely helpful to get patients to understand complex medications, their side effects, the proper time frame to take them, and answer any lingering questions.

Coordinating between the multiple bastions of healthcare falls more and more on the patient. Rather than institutions playing this vital role, increasingly patients are responsible for making the phone calls to get prescriptions, understand the side effects, and ensure that they can afford the medication.

This makes a strong case for increased collaboration between the clinics, especially for prescriptions that have higher potential for abuse. Yet while the proposal for a system-wide EMR has yet to gain the full support of the Coalition for a variety of reasons, significant strides have been made thus far in bringing the individual clinics together. Careful policy that balances these multiple factors, on the part of the WFCC and individual clinics, can help defray the costs associated with being uninsured or underinsured in the greater Worcester area.


“Unpaid, stressed, and confused: patients are the health care system’s free labor,” by Sarah Kliff, June 1, 2016.

This article describes “the considerable burden our fragmented system puts on patients to coordinate their own care,” and how the challenges associated with dealing with multiple systems in person and over the phone to get prescriptions can be akin to a part-time job.

One thought on “Prescriptions and Policy in the Free Clinics”

  1. Wow! Amazing writing! I really like how you give so much detail and the specific word choices you use. They really give the reader a better grasp of your argument.

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