Mobile Health Clinics Growing in Power and Relevance Nationwide

Mobile health clinics use inexpensive, portable screening tools and questionnaires—for diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, alcohol abuse, and depression—that are proven money savers.

| Oct 11, 2010

Imagine what it would be like to have access to basic medical care close to home or to see a trained professional without an appointment at little or no cost - even if you don't have health insurance.

That dream is already a reality to some and is quickly becoming a reality for many others. Currently, there are over 2,000 mobile health clinics in the United States that provide basic medical care at affordable rates or free of cost to both the needy and those who can avail themselves of traditional private healthcare. These mobile health clinics use inexpensive, portable screening tools and questionnaires-for diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, alcohol abuse, and depression-that are proven money savers. Many of the urban clinics keep budgets tight by employing healthcare educators and students as staff, referring patients to doctors or hospitals when something more is needed. Their rural counterparts more frequently have doctors and nurses on board to serve communities without healthcare facilities.

One mobile health clinic in particular has become the poster child for how this works-and works very well. The Family Van, a Boston-based nonprofit affiliated with Harvard Medical School, has been operating for 18 years now.  It is only during the past year, however, that many people have begun to notice just how successful a job they are doing and the huge service they are providing to the community as a whole-from the poor to those with established healthcare.

The Family Van is a 40-foot RV that travels between six low-income neighborhoods around Boston weekly. The staff sees about 3,000 people per year and focuses on providing screening and medicines in the hope of catching health issues before they become a real problem. According to Jennifer Bennet, executive director of the Family Van, "Our medical system in this country is focused on illness. What we are doing is helping people when they're sick. It would be a lot less expensive and people's quality of life would be vastly improved if we as a society and as a country start to look at addressing these problems long before they get to that acute stage."

As Sage Sohier of Newsweek points out, mobile health clinics "solve one of the most pressing problems facing the new healthcare reform law: how to expand access while controlling costs. In Massachusetts, the need is particularly acute: spending on healthcare has increased by 52 percent since the state enacted its own major health reform in 2006."

The Family Van is certainly controlling costs. After years of compiling data, the Family Van found that for every dollar invested in the van's operations, an estimated $36-in avoided ER visits, prevention of diseases, and management of chronic illnesses that can spiral out of control-has been saved. The Family Van spared the healthcare system more than $20 million last year, and it did that on a meager budget of half a million dollars.

That's pretty impressive for a 40-foot RV traveling the toughest neighborhoods in Boston to provide basic, cheap, convenient medical care. Imagine if we all had such access?

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