East Austin's Huston-Tillotson University is the first historically black college to house a federally qualified health clinic.
East Austin's Huston-Tillotson University is the first historically black college to house a federally qualified health clinic. (Carlos Rockwell/WikiCommons)

East Austin Clinic Minds the Gap in Racial Health Disparities


A version of this story ran in the May 2016 issue.

Every 15 minutes or so, the phones ring at the new Huston-Tillotson University health clinic in East Austin. Two receptionists take turns answering the calls, alternating between English and Spanish.

“How can I help you?” “Cómo te puedo ayudar?”

Since opening in January, about 50 patients each day have visited the Sandra Joy Anderson Community Health and Wellness Center. Funded entirely by a $3 million contribution from Ada Cecilia Collins, a 94-year-old Huston-Tillotson alumna, the 12,000-square-foot clinic is operated by CommUnityCare, a network of 25 primary care centers serving uninsured and low-income Austinites. The clinic has 22 exam rooms and a large waiting area with soothing violet walls.

It is also the first federally qualified health center to open on a historically black college campus.

The clinic is part of a broader city effort to study and address the health inequities that persist among racial minorities, a goal other big Texas cities including Houston and El Paso have adopted in recent years, as income inequality grows and poor Texans struggle to access health care. The clinic’s location allows it to serve both students and residents of East Austin, a predominantly black and Hispanic area undergoing intense gentrification.

Located just a few hundred feet from the campus residence hall, the health center is convenient for students like Rachel Chandler, a 21-year-old senior studying political science. Before, she scheduled appointments at off-campus clinics, or visited the school nurse for simple ailments. Now, all she needs to do is walk outside her front door.

“I have a boyfriend and we’re sexually active, so I come [every other month] to get checked for STDs, of course,” she said. “The nurse was fine, but she couldn’t do things that they can here, like checkups or lab work.”

The city of Austin contributed $500,000 in startup money to support the clinic, and the City Council also recently approved an additional $1 million to address racial disparities in health care.

According to a city of Austin report, cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes are the four leading causes of death among African Americans in Travis County, and African-American and Hispanic women are almost twice as likely to receive late pre-natal care, or none at all. The infant mortality rate for black and Hispanic babies is three times that of white babies.

“Race matters, because when we look at the differences in health, people of color bear an additional burden in sickness and death,” said Miyong Kim, a community health researcher and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The city also plans to train physicians to provide services that meet the social and cultural needs of the communities they serve, part of a growing movement to make “cultural competency” central to medical care. Chandler said the campus clinic’s black female physician is more relatable than white doctors she’s visited.

“I’m just happy that she’s black, because this is a black school,” Chandler said, adding that she feels free to talk about her relationship with her doctor. “She’s similar to me, so she’s going to know exactly what I’m going through.”