Born in a Lafayette living room, Clinica Campesina met the medical needs of the underserved and continues to help more than 50,000 patients per year as Clinica Family Health

By Dell Bleekman
Photos courtesy Clinica Family Health

 

It’s no secret that Boulder and its surrounding communities are well known for world-class health care services. But what about the many who can’t access top-notch medical facilities? Decades ago, one woman asked that same question. Today, the answer is Clinica Family Health, a health care organization rooted in providing high-quality medical and dental care to the area’s underserved residents.

The first clinic at 100 W. Cleveland St. in Lafayette.

Humble Beginnings

In the early 1970s, the landscape of Lafayette and Louisville featured many commercial farms that employed Spanish-speaking migrant workers. Alicia Sanchez, a single mother of seven and afflicted with lupus, seemed an unlikely person to take on the role of health care provider to farmworkers who lacked access to medical care. Yet people came to her small Lafayette home when they were sick or injured. She drove workers to University Hospital in Denver, assisting with appointments, translating and helping them understand test results.

Sanchez selflessly did this for years. Then, against all odds, she decided to start a clinic. Susan Wortman, Clinica’s vice president of development, says, “Sanchez rallied elected officials and hired health care workers. She became the point person, going from neighborhood to neighborhood to spread the word about this new facility.” In 1977, Clinica Campesina was born.

Inez Buggs, nurse practitioner and
Clinica’s first health provider.

Early Years

At that time, the clinic operated on a shoestring budget with six staff members providing care to about 500 patients. Wortman, who has been with Clinica for 23 years, recalls, “In these early years, the clinic saw mostly low-income farmworkers for basic health care such as blood-pressure checks, wellness visits and acute care.”

Later, the clinic expanded into prenatal care. With patient numbers rising, it was clear the need was there; in a few short years, Clinica’s practitioners were seeing 1,200 to 1,500 patients a year. And it wasn’t just patient numbers increasing — so too was the need for square footage. The clinic moved to a few different locations in Lafayette over the years, each time seeking out more space.

In 1986, Clinica landed a federal grant, recognizing it as a community-based health care center that provides primary care services to underserved areas. Finally, the clinic had a steady flow of income and was able to add staff and provide more services. After a few more years, Clinica expanded into western Adams County and (what is now) Broomfield County.

 

Some of Clinica’s founding staff at the 20th anniversary celebration, 1997.

A Better Model

Around that time, Dr. Carolyn Shepherd, Clinica’s first full-time medical director, began to develop what is now known as the “pod” model. “This approach allows us to break a big clinic into a number of small clinics,” Wortman explains, “so it feels more comfortable and personable to our patients.” Patients see the same health care team each time they come into the clinic. “That way, the team knows their patients well,” she adds, which leads to improved access to quality care. This model has been shared and replicated by health care organizations all over the country.

Indeed, this approach to care served as the inspiration for a brand new building. Senior staff envisioned a facility with an open floor plan to make the clinic more efficient. Opened in 2018, the Lafayette Medical and Dental Clinic did just that. Clinica now offers medical and mental health services at five locations, and dental care at three of its facilities. The staff grew to 650 individuals, including doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, dentists and behavioral health professionals. In 2019, Clinica served almost 60,000 patients.

A Pandemic Strikes

Clinica’s incident command team realized COVID-19 would require upending their entire care delivery model. They quickly pivoted to keep their healthy patients away from the clinic while setting up pathways to care for those who were still in need. Dental emergencies and patients not exhibiting respiratory ailments received treatment inside the clinics, while those displaying possible COVID-19 symptoms were treated in outdoor field hospital tents.

But the virus took its toll; Clinica furloughed one-third of its staff. It was a severe hit, Wortman concedes. “It’s a big deal for us — our hashtag is ‘bringbackourfriends’ and that’s what motivates us.” Indeed, bringing back furloughed staff is among the clinic’s current priorities.

Opportunities Going Forward

The pandemic allowed Clinica the opportunity to move fully into the telehealth space. “The ‘tele’ shift has been exciting for us,” says Wortman, noting the clinic embraces telehealth in every facet — medical, behavioral and even dental.

Clinica plans to reopen fully this summer. The hallways will bustle with activity, just like when the clinic first opened its doors. One difference? What began in Alicia Sanchez’s small Lafayette home is now an organization that offers a full spectrum of primary care to people of all ages. Sanchez, who died in 1985, would surely be proud.

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