2010 Award Recipient

Dr. Ellen Beck

UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project

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Dr. Ellen Beck is providing cost-effective, comprehensive health care services to the uninsured, while inspiring and training a new generation of medical professionals to work with underserved communities.

Dr. Ellen Beck’s free medical clinics in San Diego serve patients and doctors alike. They catch thousands of patients who might otherwise fall through the county’s social safety net, while training and inspiring young doctors to care for society’s least-privileged members.

The family physician and her large team of volunteers at the University of California at San Diego’s Student-Run Free Clinic Project provide comprehensive health care for people who don’t qualify for government aid and cannot afford private insurance. The doctors-in-training, supervised by licensed physicians, even make house calls to the homeless, reaching out to people on the street.

More than one in five California residents lack health insurance, and with continued high unemployment, the number of uninsured is expected to grow this year. For these Californians, there are few health care options, particularly in San Diego, which has no county hospital.

Yet Dr. Beck is proving that it’s possible to provide the uninsured with high-quality, cost-effective care, while at the same time inspiring a new generation of medical professionals to work with underserved communities.

Beck explains, “We use a patient-centered approach. We create an environment of respect and trust where people without access to care can take charge of their health and achieve well-being.”

The clinic project, directed by Dr. Beck and managed almost entirely by medical students, began in 1997 with a staff of three doctors and five students.

Initially, they operated out of a church basement, holding bake sales to pay for supplies. Today, some 500 student health professionals take part throughout the year, treating patients at two churches and an elementary school.

Under the supervision of practicing doctors, dentists, and social workers, the students annually see more than 2,000 patients — the vast majority of whom suffer from chronic diseases, such as diabetes — providing treatment and medications for free. The dental clinic makes a point of doing restorative work — not just pulling teeth — since, as Dr. Beck often says, “toothlessness leads to joblessness.”

“It’s very gratifying to see medical students and health professionals follow their dreams and discover the kind of meaning they had hoped to find within our profession,” Beck says.

We create an environment of respect and trust where people without access to care can take charge of their health and achieve well-being.

Dr. Ellen Beck

Contributions of time, services, and goods from an extensive network of volunteers and donors allow the clinics to run at the low average cost of $800 per patient per year. The project not only offers high quality care, but trains and inspires the students who provide it. Indeed, many graduates of the program return to the clinic as volunteer supervisors or start their own practices in underserved communities.

In part, that’s because Dr. Beck has created a microcosm of what is best in the health care system. Student doctors are taught a humanistic approach, spending considerably more time with each patient than is common in traditional practices. And the clinic provides not only free medical care, dental care, and medications, but mental health counseling and acupuncture as well.

For her comprehensive approach to providing high quality, cost-effective health care to the uninsured, Dr. Ellen Beck is a recipient of a 2010 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award.

Video by Talking Eyes Media

Dr. Ellen Beck

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UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project


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In 2020, Dr. Beck transitioned into the role of Founding Director and Advisor to the UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project. In 2019, she was named Faculty Director of Faculty and Leadership Development for University of California at San Diego. Additional honors have included a Kennedy Center/Steven Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, and an APHAAging and Public Health Award for excellence in program innovation.

The written profile and video reflect the work of the leader(s) the year they received a Leadership Award. Please contact the leader(s) for current information.