With free health clinic, student brings health care to Rhode Island’s underserved

Akosua Dankwah
Akosua Dankwah, pictured at the WTL Health Clinic

Akosua Dankwah, DrPH ’22, is applying what she’s learned to help the WTL Health Clinic expand its mission.

May 9, 2022—On the day a ribbon was cut to mark the opening of the free WTL Health Clinic in its new Pawtucket, Rhode Island, location in November 2019, Akosua Dankwah held half of the ceremonial oversized scissors. The event was the culmination of years of hard work led by Dankwah, who had shepherded the project from its beginning as a series of community health fairs held at her church, the Empowerment Temple of the International Central Gospel Church in Pawtucket, to its new status as a licensed Organized Ambulatory Care Facility.

But just four months later, Dankwah and her colleagues had to scale back their plans when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now, after two difficult years putting in hours of volunteer administrative time to help keep WTL (short for “the Way the Truth and the Life”) running—on top of her demanding course load at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—Dankwah is ready to move forward with her team’s vision.

Driven to serve

Dankwah emigrated from Ghana to the Midwest in her early twenties. After graduating from Knox College with a degree in biology and working as a phlebotomist and clinical research assistant, she moved to Rhode Island and began work as a clinical research assistant at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence. There and at her church, she got to know many underserved people in the area. Soon, it became clear to her that many of them had difficulty accessing health care, or were reluctant to seek it out.

With the support of church leadership, she started holding quarterly health fairs there for the community. She brought in local clinicians and other practitioners to provide health screenings, lead exercise classes, and give talks on topics such as early childhood development, men’s and women’s health, and the Ebola outbreak happening in West Africa at the time. The events were popular, particularly the high energy Afro Gospel Zumba classes.

But Dankwah and her team at the church wanted to expand upon the services they could provide in a health fair setting. “It wasn’t fun not being able to do anything beyond screening somebody. If you found something wrong and they did not have health insurance, there was nothing you could do,” she said. “And so we figured, if we’ve been able to connect with all these clinicians and resources in the community, why not take the next step and put together a free clinic?”

With the goal of learning everything she could to make this happen, Dankwah started her MPH program at Brown University School of Public Health in 2014. For her thesis, she conducted a health needs assessment of the local African immigrant community. The results were published in 2017 in the Rhode Island Medical Journal.

She and her co-authors found that immigrants tended to be less healthy the longer they were in the country. Those she interviewed showed high rates of a number of chronic conditions including joint and back pain, and cardiovascular disease. They also showed high levels of stress, which she noted could be due to their relatively low socioeconomic status, and to culture shock.

“It’s fast-paced over here, but we’re so laid back where we come from,” she told a Brown University publication. “And we are very communal—in the U.S., it’s ‘each man for himself.’”

The WTL clinic officially launched as a non-profit free clinic after she graduated in 2016, providing some primary care services. It started out in Dankwah’s church, and found a permanent space the following year in Pawtucket. Dankwah led the effort, securing funding and volunteers, and attending to important administrative steps such as incorporating as a nonprofit and securing malpractice insurance.

As she put in hours of volunteer time, Dankwah found support and encouragement from members of her church. They even helped get the clinic off the ground with their donations. “I’ve seen a single mom who’s working two or three jobs give a few dollars,” she said. “I have to honor that and do what I can to make the clinic a success.”

Weathering a pandemic, expanding care

Dankwah enrolled in the DrPH program at Harvard Chan School in 2019. Throughout her program, she’s been applying what she’s learned to help WTL grow.

Just two months after she started her studies, WTL became licensed as an Organized Ambulatory Care Facility, expanding the range of primary care services it could provide. Dankwah scaled back her involvement, but continued putting in volunteer time on tasks like writing grants and coordinating student volunteers.

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, Dankwah and the rest of the clinic’s leadership opted to close the clinic to walk-ins, but still offered some services by appointment. In recent months, they’ve been able to start seeing patients for several hours every Friday. They’ve offered COVID-19 testing throughout the pandemic and have administered more than 500 vaccinations. Health services are currently provided by community and church volunteers, including Eugenio Fernandez, MPH ’16. Last November, the clinic earned a Gold Rating from the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics.

“Akosua has amazed me with her dedication to making the WTL clinic a reality while concurrently completing her doctoral program,” said Richard Bolton Siegrist, senior lecturer on health care management, who mentored Dankwah and oversaw her work on an independent study related to WTL. “She developed a plan, secured the necessary support, and delivered highly needed services to the community during a pandemic.”

During summer 2020, Dankwah worked with the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services’ Health Systems Transformation Project as part of the DrPH program’s field immersion, with the support of a Harvard Presidential Public Service fellowship. The project changed the way providers would be paid for treating Medicare payments. Dankwah helped translate the complex policy into language that would be more understandable to community organizations, and also initiated some tough conversations around racism and health inequity.

Following her summer field work, she had the opportunity to continue working with the office on assessing and implementing its race equity plan and received a Rose Service Learning Fellowship to support her work.

Now in her final weeks at Harvard Chan School, Dankwah is wrapping up a thesis on how Black church leaders can use their influence in their communities to address the opioid use disorder crisis. She’s also looking forward to working with her team to fully reopen the clinic and expand its services.

“We need more hands and more resources, but there’s so much more that we can do,” she said.

Amy Roeder

Photo: Kent Dayton