The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed professionals and healthcare systems to the brink. As our population’s health needs evolve, health care must turn to innovative models to meet those needs equitably and sustainably. Mobile health clinics can play an important part and reduce health disparities, especially among vulnerable populations, those with chronic illness, and rural communities without easy access to healthcare facilities.
For some people, mobile health clinics are the only means to lifesaving medical treatment. For many, access to affordable health care may not be possible without mobile clinic services.
What is a mobile health clinic, exactly? What services can they provide? And how are they improving access to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and around the world?
Despite efforts to improve access to quality health care, the United States faces increasing costs and high rates of chronic disease. Worse, vulnerable groups — including low-income people, those who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, and rural communities — continue to face disproportionately negative health outcomes. To combat these disparities, health care must increase access to affordable, equitable, culturally sensitive health services.
Mobile health clinics can bring such needed health services directly to underserved populations. These clinics take many forms, including buses, vans, RVs, and trailers that can operate independently from or as extensions of existing healthcare organizations. Mobile health clinics provide a wide range of services to people who may not otherwise receive care, including urgent care, primary care, and preventive health support.
Mobile health clinics benefit communities by making health care more affordable and accessible, which in turn improves patient outcomes.
Mobile health clinics provide quality care at a lower cost than that of traditional healthcare delivery modes. According to Mobile Health Map, for every $1 spent on mobile health, $12 are saved, resulting in a return on investment of 12:1.
In emergencies, mobile health clinics save patients money by helping them avoid expensive emergency room visits. Estimates show that each mobile clinic results in an average of 600 fewer emergency room visits each year. This translates to an average savings of one-fifth of the cost of care.
Moreover, mobile clinics provide cost-effective prevention services that reduce the amount of care an individual needs over their lifetime. On average, each mobile health clinic saves 65 quality-adjusted life years (a common metric used by healthcare professionals) every year.
Mobile health clinics extend healthcare access to vulnerable populations at a fraction of the cost of running a traditional hospital or care facility.
Given the nature of mobile health clinics, healthcare providers can tailor their services to specific communities. Mobile health clinics offer flexible, responsive care for isolated and vulnerable groups and newly displaced populations. The flexibility mobile clinics provide allows professionals to respond dynamically to a population’s current and evolving health needs.
According to a self-report by 291 mobile health clinics, 56 percent of clinics specifically target uninsured patients, 55 percent aim to serve low-income patients, 38 percent target homeless patients, and 36 percent target rural patients.
Mobile health clinics improve access to health care in rural areas. The World Health Organization uses mobile healthcare teams to operate via bike, boat, vehicle, and even on foot when coordinating a crisis response. In the United States, mobile health clinics may stay in a given region for years, adjusting the health care they provide to fit the specific needs of the populations they serve.
Other populations frequently targeted by mobile health clinics include veterans (18 percent), migrants (17 percent), school-aged populations (14 percent), people in public housing (14 percent), and LGBTQIAP+ patients (13 percent). Clinics in this study were able to select more than one target population.
Such clinics may also operate in urban spaces to serve a specific population, such as unhoused or transitory individuals for whom healthcare costs may be a major deterrent to seeking treatment.
Mobile health clinics also connect patients to wider community resources. They collaborate with local agencies such as community health centers, churches, and other hospitals and clinics to offer their patients medical and social services. According to a 20-year study, patients who sought care at mobile health clinics reported feeling more empowered to navigate the broader healthcare systems’ complex medical scheduling and billing processes.
Mobile clinics offer a wide range of healthcare services, including:
- Urgent care
- Primary care
- Preventive health screenings
- Chronic disease management
- Behavioral health services
- Dental care
- Prenatal care
- Pediatric care
Mobile health clinics can offer the first line of defense against illness for underserved populations. According to a longitudinal study of mobile clinics published in the International Journal for Equity in Health, 45 percent offer prevention screenings, 42 percent offer primary care, and 30 percent offer dental services. These essential services can bridge the gap between community health needs and traditional care delivery modes.
The same study found that many mobile health clinics also provide specialty care, such as mammography, mental health support, and ophthalmology services. These services make health care more affordable and easier to access.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed healthcare systems’ limits globally, and the U.S. is no exception. Mobile clinics fill gaps in healthcare delivery safety nets, reaching vulnerable people in both rural and urban settings. Currently, about 2,000 mobile clinics operate in the U.S. and serve an estimated 7 million at-risk individuals each year.
Mobile clinics have been crucial in reaching displaced and isolated individuals during the pandemic. As hospitals and other care facilities filled and adjusted to changing safety protocols, mobile clinics sprung into action, bringing care services directly to patients who needed them.
Mobile health clinics have played a crucial role during the pandemic in supporting low-income patients, who tend to delay medical care for financial reasons. Early pandemic-era studies found that in some Southern states, delivering health care cost less when patients sought services from a mobile clinic compared to when patients used Medicare for services offered in traditional healthcare settings, such as hospitals.
Less than 20 percent of mobile clinics have provided their usual services since COVID-19’s onset. Mobile health clinics have adapted during the pandemic to meet community needs and have focused on testing and triage. Many have also transitioned to telehealth services, calling and texting their patients and providing services electronically.
One in 10 mobile clinics have provided COVID-19 testing. Many mobile clinics offer drive-through testing or outdoor testing to allow medical providers to give patients results quickly and safely.
Some mobile clinics have gotten creative with their care delivery; for example, in tented mobile clinics in a parking lot outside the Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas, nurses perform triage in patient’s vehicles, then direct patients to drive to a trailer to see a doctor for further care.
The majority of alternative services offered by mobile health clinics during the pandemic were telecommunications with patients and telehealth. In a survey of 121 mobile clinic programs providing alternative services, 42 percent reported providing phone calls and texts to clients, 36 percent reported providing telehealth services, 20 percent reported providing a clean work site outside of a healthcare facility, and 11 percent reported acting as an emergency room diversion.
Another crucial role mobile health clinics have played during the pandemic has been community education about COVID-19. Mobile health clinics are able to reach populations that otherwise would not receive adequate or affordable treatment, and around 31 percent of clinics reported providing this service.
Although mobile health clinics may cost less to operate and save patients medical costs overall, mobile health is still underfunded compared to traditional medical delivery modes. For medical professionals or advocates seeking to open a mobile clinic, funding is still largely based on philanthropy and grants. For mobile health clinics to provide innovative care at a higher capacity, some scholars have advocated that policymakers open the door to options beyond the grant-based funding model.
For those wondering how to start a mobile health clinic, consider the following tips:
- Research specific community needs. Mobile clinics today largely operate with a specific population, or set of populations, in mind. To earn grant funding, and to provide both equitable and accessible care, a mobile clinic should have a target population, such as unhoused patients, uninsured patients, or patients in rural areas.
- Prepare to adapt. Mobile health clinics must be flexible and responsive to the dynamic healthcare landscape, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Advocate for mobile health care. Despite its benefits, mobile health care is arguably underfunded. For those interested in starting a mobile health clinic, activism and advocacy can help policymakers understand mobile health’s value as an important partner alongside traditional medical delivery models. Increasing specific government funding programs can enable mobile clinic programs to expand.
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