Nationwide survey shows free clinics provide care to nearly 2 million patients

Research Activities, December 2010, No. 364

The first survey in 40 years of all known U.S. free clinics shows that free clinics contribute substantially to the ambulatory care safety-net system (community health centers, emergency departments, public clinics, and hospital outpatient departments), even though they operate outside of it. Every State (with the exception of Alaska) and the District of Columbia has one or more free clinics.

Julie S. Darnell, Ph.D., M.H.S.A., currently of the University of Illinois at Chicago, surveyed all known free clinics in the United States, with 764 out of the total 1,007 clinics responding to the survey. In any given year, these clinics provide care to 1.8 million patients, most of whom are uninsured. This amounts to 3.1 million medical and 300,000 dental visits. They provide these services on a very lean budget that averages $287,810 annually. Although a few clinics own their own buildings, most rent their facilities. More than half (58.7 percent) reported not receiving any sort of government revenue. Most sources of funding were individual donations, civic group and church giving, and foundation support.

According to the survey findings, the majority of patients treated at free clinics are age 18 to 64. Half are white, 25.1 percent are Hispanic, and 21.2 percent are black. These clinics are also important sources of health care for the homeless. The main services include physical examinations, medication dispensing, chronic disease management, and urgent/acute care. While more than half (54.1 percent) of all free clinics charge nothing for their services, 45.9 percent request an average fee or donation of $9.30 from the patient. If patients require x-rays or lab tests, most of these are free from other facilities when necessary. The study was supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS15555).

See "Free clinics in the United States," by Dr. Darnell in the June 14, 2010, Archives of Internal Medicine 179(11), pp. 946-953.

Current as of December 2010
Internet Citation: Nationwide survey shows free clinics provide care to nearly 2 million patients: Research Activities, December 2010, No. 364. December 2010. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.