Clinics go mobile to bring health care to streets of Western Pennsylvania
Nurses need about 15 minutes to run a health screening on Braden Holland, 3, even when they have to prick a finger to take blood.
But for his mother, visiting a conventional doctor's office — and waiting for an appointment — can mean taking a day off from work and juggling schedules to get Braden a routine checkup.
Enter the renovated Ronald McDonald Care Mobile unit run through UPMC, one of an estimated 2,000 mobile health clinics nationwide that hospitals, charity groups and other providers are equipping for a growing variety of quick-hit services. At least three new or overhauled mobile clinics have hit the streets across Western Pennsylvania in the past year, focusing on economically depressed communities with few care options.
“A lot of people around here don't have vehicles, so this is very good for them, too,” said Braden's mother, Ashley Holland, 26, of Clairton. His screening took less than a half-hour Monday on a recreational vehicle parked for its weekly stop outside a discount store in the Monongahela River valley community.
Mainstream mobile clinics got a start in the United States about 50 years ago in southern California and have gained traction incrementally, said Elizabeth Wallace, executive director of the nonprofit Mobile Health Clinics Association in St. Louis. She said the federal Affordable Care Act has helped, urging nonprofit hospital systems to improve health across the general population and all demographics.
More than that, Wallace said, mobile clinics have proven their worth in reaching people who don't use traditional hospitals or doctors' offices. She said many vehicles are evolving from basic referral services to offer broader spectrums of care, including mammography, mental health sessions and dental checks.
“We know that if you can keep people out of the emergency rooms, and you can keep people healthier, it's good not just for the people but for society in general,” Wallace said.
At the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, mobile clinics started about 20 years ago with a converted bread truck that workers used to distribute shoes, socks and blankets.
The latest model, a 39-foot-long RV with several rooms, allows medical volunteers to analyze bodily fluids, draw blood and complete pregnancy tests, among other services. The $310,000 vehicle went into service this fall and is expected to reach about 175 patients a week through homeless outreach services and separate clinics through the Pittsburgh Mercy Family Health Center.
Part of the idea is to cut down on overuse of emergency rooms, encourage people to see primary care doctors and prevent health crises, said Dr. J. Todd Wahrenberger, medical director at the Family Health Center in the South Side.
“It's always better to check the blood pressure in the doctor's office than to treat a stroke in the emergency room,” Wahrenberger said.
The vision is similar at St. Vincent Hospital in Erie, where the staff put a new mobile clinic into service in summer 2013. CEO Scott Whalen said the vehicle can help ease unnecessary case loads in the emergency room, where expenses far outpace visits to a primary care doctors for preventive appointments.
“By decreasing that number, we help to lower health care costs to employers and other people in the region, so it's better off for the businesses as well as us,” Whalen said.
His hospital is part of the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Health Network. At rival UPMC, Ronald McDonald Care Mobile manager Cheryl Kraus said her vehicle is beginning to bring social workers on board to help sign up families for insurance or other social welfare services.
The Care Mobile, supported through the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh, sees 1,000 to 3,000 kids a year. Kraus said the staff tries to refer them to traditional primary care providers, although several families this week appeared to use the vehicle as more of a routine stop.
“It's hard nowadays. Just making it is hard,” she said.
Outside St. Mary of Mercy Parish, Downtown, Charles Campbell, 30, of the South Side sipped hot coffee as a cold wind cut down the Boulevard of the Allies on Monday night. Once homeless, Campbell said visits from the Pittsburgh Mercy vehicle at the church make for a social gathering point, offering not just medical care but also inspiration and an oasis of calm.
“It's hope for life for people,” said Campbell, who has received care from the group. “This is like an opportunity for people to be happy during the week.”
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.