Established more than 900 years ago, The Order of Malta’s origin dates back to 1048 A.D., with the dispatch of hospitaller monks destined for Jerusalem to care for and heal pilgrims of all faiths. The monks of the Order of St. John later formed a lay order of the Catholic Church to serve the sick and poor worldwide.
One might be forgiven to assume that the prosperous San Francisco Bay Area would hardly be the place for such a charitable organization to base its Northern California headquarters, but even in this wealthy community, we have many poor and uninsured people in desperate need of medical attention.
Located in downtown Oakland across from Lake Merritt, the clinic has been dubbed “the miracle on 21st Street,” as its reputation for providing outstanding diagnostic evaluation and attention to the most needy has grown. The clinic’s specialists are credentialed as Diabetic Nurse Educators (DNE), and while not practitioners, they truly are in every sense of the valuable care they provide.
Dr. Thomas Wallace, MD, is the clinic’s interim medical director, who explains that his team is keeping their mission alive with a highly qualified volunteer staffing model, supported with private donations and a “unique charism,” and a unique business plan.
In this exclusive interview, Dr. Wallace shares additional insights and observations with readers of The American Magazine (Rome).
The American: How does the Clinic work with secular health care providers to lessen the impact of hospital ER visits?
Dr. Wallace: The Order of Malta Clinic of Northern California is a safety net for those lacking access to medical care, whether uninsured or underinsured. Because of our unique volunteer model, we can provide access to high quality medical care at $150 per patient visit. The same emergency room visit starts at $1,200. Our hospital partners, including John Muir Health, Sutter Health, and Kaiser, appreciate our role in providing access to urgent care in a free medical care environment.
The American: We understand that the clinic serves patients coming from a great many cities and counties outside of Oakland. Can you describe the details of this outreach?
Dr. Wallace: Patients learn about the Clinic from friends, family, and other community organizations. Many patients are referred to us by clinics that only provide primary care and do not have all the specialty services we provide. After 15 years and being open 5 days a week (we opened in 2008 only 2 day per week), awareness for the Clinic has grown, and patients travel from 76 cities or 15 countries in the Bay Area to our location. Our growth has been organic, and the need is not going away.
The American: What are the primary health problems of the patients coming to the Clinic?
Dr. Wallace: Primary health concerns are diabetes and hypertension, and while patients may come to us for some other reason, we often find that they are also presenting with diabetes and hypertension. After 2020, the number of patients that presented with both diabetes and mental health issue skyrocketed. We added diabetic nurse practitioners, a social worker and psychiatrist.
The American: What are the clinic’s plans for expansion?
Dr. Wallace: In 2022, we raised over two million dollars to expand the Clinic from its current 1,700 square feet to over 3,000 square feet. This will allow us to double the number of exam rooms from three to six, and to add office space for providers that don’t require an exam table, for example, our diabetic nurse practitioners. The architectural plans have been submitted to the City of Oakland for permits and we hope construction will begin in December, and that we will be prepared for a grand reopening in late March.
The American: How will the clinic get the word out to educate the community about its services?
Dr. Wallace: Our website is optimized to come up when patients are searching for free medical care, and beginning this month, we are launching our first every advertising campaign with the theme of “Let’s get you to a healthy place.” We are in Spanish language radio, bus shelters, outdoor boards, BART posters, and some print and social media. We are very excited, as this is in anticipation of going from a terminal capacity of 5,000 patient visits per year to 10,000 patient visits.