The use of mobile clinics is a cost-effective way for health systems to build trust and support in underserved communities, according to a new report.
“I think there are just some misconceptions about what [a] mobile [clinic] costs and what it can do,” said Mollie Williams, executive director at Harvard Medical School’s Mobile Health Map. Mobile Health Map, which aggregates data on mobile clinics across the country, co-authored the report along with the Mobile Health Association.
Williams also serves as the executive director for Harvard Medical’s Family Van, a mobile clinic that serves the Boston-area. According to data cited within the report, Family Van was able to reduce costs associated with early disability and death as well as avoidable readmissions.
Williams has seen how clinics can increase trust by taking clinicians out of their traditional settings and placing them in front of patients. “You can’t decide that people should trust you when there’s an emergency. That trust has to be built overtime,” she said.
A 2020 study from Mobile Health Map, published in the International Journal for Equity in Health, found more than half of mobile clinic patients served were women and 60% identified as racial or ethnical minorities.
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Yet, only one third of the clinics analyzed were tied to a private health system. That’s an area of opportunity for these organizations, researchers said.
“We need more examples of [cost savings] for systems. It is so specific to each community,” Williams said.
While mobile clinics are still novel for many health systems, experts say benefits for providers, payers and patients are all possible if these clinics formed correctly. Mobile clinics must be supported by data collection and community engagement efforts to prove its return on investment, the report found. Technology barriers are no longer a major factor impeding implementation, experts say.
Beyond cost savings and reaching underserved communities, benefits include stimulating value-based care programs, expanding market reach and improving organizational culture.
“For health systems that want to reach vulnerable communities, talk to the community,” Williams said. “Mobile clinics are a starting point for those conversations.”
The market has started to respond. Recently, Homeward, a startup digital health company targeting rural communities with mobile clinics and in-home care, partnered with national pharmacy chain, RiteAid to use its pharmacy sites as temporary mobile clinic locations.
Through this arrangement, Homeward seeks to engage patients via vans parked at Rite Aid pharmacies. After engaging with a patient, Homeward can provide virtual care follow ups. The company will augment care with cellular-based remote patient monitoring that is able to share patient data with providers.
“Implementing the technology is not the hurdle,” said Jennifer Schneider, Homeward’s CEO. “The technology today is fairly ubiquitous, and we have had good experience with adoption.”
This story first appeared in Digital Health Business & Technology.