How barriers to healthcare led to free mobile clinics

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published September 30, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • US mobile health clinics provide healthcare to populations that may encounter difficulty accessing it, including uninsured patients, those below the poverty line, patients of color, veterans, and immigrants, among others.

  • More than half of the patients who tend to use mobile health clinics are women (55%) or represent a racial or ethnic minority (59%).

  • Doctors can help increase access to healthcare by using virtual tools, such as telehealth and remote patient monitoring.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that healthcare options need to be much more accessible. In response, thousands of mobile health clinics have arisen to provide affordable, quality healthcare, especially in medically underserved areas.

Tools such as telehealth can also help patients access healthcare in new ways.

Profile of mobile health clinics

Mobile clinics are popular in metropolitan areas. In Boston, for example, a free mobile health clinic known as The Family Van is run in connection with Harvard Medical School and offers basic medical care.[] It's parked in Dorchester, MS, and is open to the public 4 days a week.

Inside the van, two community health workers and a supervisor take each patient’s blood pressure and measure their blood sugar. Outside the van, another community health worker chats with locals, and interns mana table of health flyers.

On the West Coast, a mobile clinic named La Clínica popped up this spring, the fruit of One Community Health’s work in this region.

As reported in an article published by The Gorge Magazine, La Clínica is an RV that drives through Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge area, parking at a few regular spots throughout the week.[]

This mobile health clinic offers urgent care exams and treatments, COVID testing, and various vaccines.

Clinicians also provide pediatric care, eye exams, and chronic disease management, as well as support for substance abuse. No matter the ailment, La Clínica aims to provide healthcare to those who need it most—which is One Community Health’s primary goal.

The struggle to access care

Mobile health clinics across the nation serves an important purpose: to provide care to patients who don’t normally have access to it.

But who doesn’t have access, and why?

According to a 2020 study published by the International Journal for Equity in Health, the patients who most often visit mobile health clinics belong to more vulnerable populations.[]

Researchers analyzed data for 2007–2017 provided by 811 mobile clinics, all of which participated in Mobile Health Map, the only comprehensive database of US mobile clinics. The results showed that 55% of the patients who used this resource were women, and 59% were from racial or ethnic minority groups.

In addition, 41% of the patients were uninsured (based on the 146 clinics that reported insurance data); 44%, however, had some type of public insurance.

Patients who rely on mobile health clinics often lack access to more traditional forms of healthcare due to a variety of barriers. These obstacles may include lack of transportation, inadequate time to get to an appointment, inability to navigate the complexity of the healthcare system, and an absence of trust in the system.

By moving away from traditional forms of care and creating a culture of inclusivity among underserved communities, mobile health clinics begin to bridge the access gap between patients and the healthcare they need.

Reach patients with telehealth

Although large-scale policy changes may eventually improve healthcare access in the long run, is there something you can do in the meantime?

How can you make your practice more accessible?

According to the AMA, using the internet may be a good starting point. Simply taking advantage of virtual tools like telehealth can increase access to your practice.

As the AMA wrote, “Telehealth and remote patient monitoring will become an essential, cost-effective and reliable means to expand capacity in a health system marked by significant and persistent specialty shortages and geographic disparities.”[]

Hopping on telehealth can therefore give patients who may not be able to get to a medical office the chance to receive care—and you can do so from your home for a win-win.

What this means for you

Thousands of mobile health clinics are popping up across the country to provide quality healthcare to medically underserved communities. By diminishing barriers of transportation, time, and trust, these clinics improve healthcare access for vulnerable populations. You can address these roadblocks by implementing virtual tools like telehealth and remote patient monitoring, allowing patients to reach you outside your office.

Read Next: Medicine's biggest challenges in a post-COVID world

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