How to Find Free (or Cheap) Health Resources
Free (or cheap) health resources are available if you know where to look. So don't ignore a nagging problem or skip a screening just because you think it's unaffordable. Even if you feel great and have plenty of spending money, you can access many of these online and community-based, face-to-face sources of healthcare and advice. (See also: 50 Ways to Squeeze Value From Your Healthcare Dollar)
Take these steps to find what resources are best suited for you and your family:
- Figure out what health care services you need based on screening guidelines, family medical history, and any health conditions.
- Classify yourself (by physical characteristics or financial status), because some resources are available only to certain populations based on gender, race, income, or lack of eligibility for employer-sponsored insurance. Many resources, though, are available for free or at a low cost to everyone.
- Explore community resources that may include full-service clinics as well as specialized screenings.
- Make arrangements to access services, which may involve putting a health fair on your calendar, registering for a group session provided by a hospital outreach group, booking an appointment, or filling out paperwork.
- If you can afford the bill, pay now so that you can save money later. For example, establishing a relationship with a primary care provider (at a list price of a couple of hundred bucks or a co-pay of $10 to $25) means that you may have access to free services such as phone consultations.
To learn about what types of health care you may need, locate screenings, or get treatment, check out these resources.
Online resources can be helpful in educating yourself so that you can solve some of your own health-related problems or better communicate with health care providers.
The Family Doctor site is run by the American Academy of Family Physicians and contains a symptom checker recommended by Davis Liu, M.D., board-certified family physician and author of Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely. Find your symptom and use the flowchart to figure out whether you need to seek medical help right now or whether you can safely take care of yourself at home.
Davis mentioned the myhealthfinder widget from Healthfinder.gov as a great virtual place to figure out what screenings are recommended based on your age and gender. Use this information to discuss needs with your physician or guide you in identifying the free health care resources you need.
My Family Health Portrait
Create a family medical history using this online family history tool created by the Surgeon General. Give a copy to your physician and use this information to help you find free or low-cost screenings.
The Mayo Clinic site includes a wealth of information about various diseases and conditions, including symptoms, causes, risk factors, and advice on preparing for appointments. You can also find tips on preventing disease or managing conditions, such as exercise recommendations and heart-healthy recipes, as Marla discovered when researching how to lower her cholesterol.
There are many free resources that are available on a regular basis to nearly anyone, from the penniless to the wealthy. A few are available sporadically, and just a handful require that you qualify for services based on financial status. Accessing these resources typically requires face-to-face visits or phone calls.
The pharmacists at your local drugstore, whether independently owned or a chain store, are excellent resources on both prescription and over-the-counter medications. Face-to-face consultations on the purpose of a prescribed medication, contraindications (when you should never take the drug), side effects, etc. should be available when you pick up a prescription or over the phone, if you have questions later. In addition, many pharmacists provide advice on over-the-counter medications for minor illnesses if you can catch them when the pharmacy is not busy. Typically, the advice is free.
Hospital Outreach Centers
Many local hospitals have community outreach programs with sessions on the campus of the main facility or at a more convenient location such as a shopping mall. You can find a wide range of services that include educational sessions on wellness topics such as heart-healthy cooking classes or disease management, plus health screenings. One of the local outreach centers in my area offers specialized services such as foot evaluations for diabetes. Typically, you must register for a session or book an appointment to receive the free or low-cost screenings.
To find out about services in your area, check out the community or wellness sections of your hospital's website, or call and ask about a calendar of events.
When you visit a health fair or expo, you will meet various types of health care providers who offer their services at no charge and certain tests for free or at a reduced rate. These events are typically held at community gathering places, such as university and college campuses, houses of worship, and Y facilities. You may also find health fairs in corporate break rooms and cafeterias, though these are usually open to employees only.
Health care services vary but tend to focus on screenings for heart disease and education, such as checks of blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels. Many offer vision and hearing tests including glaucoma checks. Some events, such as a local fair in my area, are more comprehensive and offer lung function, sickle cell, and bone density checks. Plan your visit by matching the screenings you need with those offered. Expect that certain tests (like cholesterol checks, which benefit a large percentage of people) may require an appointment or a wait. If you need follow-up care, take the results to your physician or get a referral to a provider at the health fair.
Check community newsletters and stay alert to announcements in the newspaper, on television, and via social media to find out about health fairs.
Schools and preschools offer screenings at specific times of the year (that is, they may screen students at the start of the school year or in the spring for fall enrollment). In my area, the schools offer screenings for speech and language development, vision, and dental health to children of preschool or school age in the community. Flu shots are offered to at-risk children, such as those who have asthma. Sports physicals are available for high school athletes; these are held at the school or a public health facility. Most services are free, including flu shots. There is a small charge ($10) for the sports physical.
If you have children, check with your local school system to learn about services.
Blood Donation Sites
The American Red Cross collects blood at its regional offices and various community sites such as civic centers, high schools, houses of worship, and college campuses. On-site screenings include checks of your blood pressure, temperature, and hemoglobin. The services are free and are often accompanied by free meals or snacks, though you are expected to donate a pint of blood.
Community Health Clinics
Many communities have free (or nearly free) medical clinics available to area residents. Some offer primary care only, focusing on wellness checks, management of chronic disease, and treatment of injuries and illnesses. Others may have specialists on staff in areas such as cardiology, gastroenterology, and urology. Generally, these clinics do not offer emergency services.
Services are typically free or charge a reduced fee on a sliding-scale basis. Some have strict eligibility requirements based on financial status and require patients to complete an application before setting an appointment, while other clinics accept patients on a come-as-you-are basis.
In my area, the Community Care Center provides basic and specialty services to eligible patients. Charitable and religious organizations also run free clinics on a regular basis. To find a community health center, visit the National Association of Health Centers website or look for local listings of free or low-cost clinics.
Government agencies fund community-based programs and health departments, which offer health care to area residents. Primary care services for certain populations are typically available. These may include well-child services, such as physicals and developmental assessments, or cancer screenings for women. Some services are free while others may be available on a sliding-scale basis.
Find a health center using the search option on the Health Resources and Services Administration site or visit clinics associated with your local health department.
These organizations are typically focused on research, advocacy, and awareness but may provide services directly to patients and their families. These services may include professional and peer advice on coping with your specific disease, transportation to and from medical appointments, rental of medical equipment, and medical supplies. Most services are free.
Find a local chapter to receive guidance or help from organizations such as the National MS Society or Alzheimer’s Association. Also, look for local agencies; in my area, Cancer Services provides support services to patients and their families.
Health Care Providers and Employers
Physician practices typically offer phone consultations to established patients at no charge. These calls may save you from spending money on an office visit. Some primary care physicians and orthopedists may provide you with information to perform at-home (or at-the-gym) physical therapy, saving you from spending on these services. Occasionally, practices offer free screenings on a limited basis, like colonscopies by this GI practice.
Some employers offer free or cheap screenings periodically. They may also offer access to web-based or telephone-based health services for employees and their family members. Check your benefits package or ask your human resources manager about health and wellness services available for free.
Most pharmaceutical companies have patient assistance programs that provide free medications to eligible patients. Typically, you will need to work with your health care provider to apply for the program.
Visit Needy Meds, go to drug-makers' websites to find information and forms for these programs, or ask at your doctor's office about application procedures.
Many non-profit organizations have resources that help patients with treatment. In my area, a ministry runs a free pharmacy for eligible clients, for example. Other services may include transportation to medical appointments, speech therapy, and corrective lenses.
Some focus on specific diseases and provide free resources or fund the cost of these resources for patients, working in collaboration with community groups. For example, Sister, Speak! provides breast cancer awareness and free mammograms through funding from the Komen Foundation. A women's group associated with the foundation of a local hospital funds health programs that include free screening for osteoporosis and anemia.
Ask your friends about resources they may have discovered or check with The Office of Minority Health, which links to patient resources nationwide.
Planning is useful in accessing many of these resources, so anticipating your needs can help save money and protect your health. But even if you are in a hurry or have had an unexpected need, online resources can help you figure out your next step for free.
Are there free or really cheap health resources that you use? Tell us about them in the comments.