Health care is taking a whole new form, bringing doctors to neighborhoods where regular checkups and wellness exams are nearly nonexistent.
Chiricahua Community Health Centers just purchased its fourth mobile health unit earlier this year. The mobile unit will join a fleet of three other mobile medical buses Chiricahua has wheeling around Cochise County throughout the year.
The goal of the new addition is to help better reach families and children in the county who wouldn’t have access to regular health care otherwise, said Darlene Melk, a physician with Chiricahua.
“There are pockets in the county that have either no physician or there is only one physician in practice,” she said. “Or they don’t offer sliding-scale discounts or don’t take their insurance. We knew that was the case in Benson.”
Mobile units are also used to provide health care to seasonal migrant farm workers, the homeless population and adolescents, Melk said. Over the last four years, Chiricahua started parking its mobile units outside of local high schools to provide myriad resources for teens like sexual health screening and education.
The units don’t provide intensive care and aren’t ambulances.
Instead, Chiricahua wants to target people with treatable diseases who otherwise might go unnoticed or neglected. The units also provide information to a variety of community resources like mental health professionals.
For Chiricahua, mobile health units might not be the most cost-efficient method of treatment, but Melk said it’s one of the best ways to reach out to the community, and saves the health care system $16 for every $1 invested in the mobile units.
“Even though mobile medicine is not efficient — it’s not, it’s costly; we can’t see a high volume of patients — we see patients who would have nowhere else to go other than the emergency room,” Melk said. “So we are seeing a lot of patients with a lot chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension that could be easily treated.”
Each unit serves its own region in the county from the border area in Douglas to the streets of Benson and Bisbee. With the new addition to the mobile fleet, Melk said the unit will be used as a backup vehicle in case others are taken out of service for repairs or renovations.
“Then, we wouldn’t have to close our operation,” she said. “It’s going to give us that extra support that we haven’t had.”
Chiricahua began offering clinics on wheels 10 years ago through its first mobile unit. The mobile health initiative started in 2008 in partnership with the Children’s Health Fund, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to providing healthcare to disadvantaged youth and families across the country.
The Children’s Health Fund’s chief executive officer, Dennis Walto, said the organization’s mobile health initiative was birthed from a homelessness “crisis” in the 1980s.
“Even though a family might have been located a couple of blocks from a clinic, they might not even know that the clinic was there,” Walto said. “There were so many stresses in the course of a day that parents weren’t able to access health care for their kids. … This idea of our ours to use mobile-based care was born.
“The partnership with Chiricahua is just an extension of that mission.”
Walto said the mobile health care initiative helps break access barriers to families in need, especially economically disadvantaged families. Mobile units give children and their families a type of “medical home” they can depend on.
“It’s not a physical place where they can sleep, but really a touch point that can coordinate all of the care services that they may need,” he said. “It might be mental health or a specialist appointment for dermatology. It may mean a host of other specialties, but we want that child and that family to have that single touch point and know that their care is going to be managed.”
Both Melk and Walto said mobile health units are changing the game in the medical field. With more options for people in need, Melk said she hopes the mobile fleet can continue to address the needs of the community and expand to serve more high school populations.
“We just want to see where the need is and what the community needs us for.”