When you picture a doctor’s office, plush chairs, magazines and calming music might come to mind. What you probably don’t envision is a 40-foot, three-room medical office on wheels.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the popularity and visibility of mobile health care units; however, they have been playing a crucial role in breaking down barriers to health care for underserved communities for quite some time. The Charleston area and the Upstate both are served by federally qualified health centers operating out of mobile medical units and offering patients a wide array of services in convenient locations.
New Horizon Family Health Services is a community health center that has been serving the Upstate since 1992. Its operation includes three mobile medical units – a primary care unit, Health Care for the Homeless unit and dental unit – which travel across Greenville, Greer, Travelers Rest and other surrounding communities.
“Our organization’s mobile medical and dental units play an essential role in meeting the growing need for access to comprehensive, coordinated primary and preventive care services in the communities we serve,” said Regina M. Mitchell, New Horizon Family Health Services president and chief executive officer.
New Horizon is focused on providing all patients, whether they have private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or are uninsured or underinsured, with integrated health care, beginning with primary care. Patients are able to access primary medical care, dental, behavioral health, pharmacy and laboratory services and are also connected with care advocates to assist with issues such as food insecurity, unemployment and inadequate housing.
New Horizon’s Health Care for the Homeless CARE Team express mobile unit, a 35-foot doctor’s office on wheels, serves a 13-county area, traveling to homeless shelters around the Upstate to provide primary health care and prescription medication to a community in desperate need of its services. Started in 2005, the program provides more than 5,000 primary, medical, dental and behavioral health visits and access to prescription medications to more than 2,500 homeless individuals annually.
“For a lot of folks experiencing homelessness, the Health Care for the Homeless Program is the only health care access they may have outside of the emergency room,” said Brandon Cook, HCH program director.
The newest member of the New Horizon mobile fleet is the 40-foot mobile medical team, a unit featuring two exam rooms and providing a wide range of primary care services, including preventive care, treatment for minor illnesses and management of chronic conditions to families and children.
“Many families face challenges accessing affordable health care, including having adequate transportation to a doctor’s office. By providing medical services throughout our community, we can help remove these barriers,” said Mitchell.
In Charleston, Fetter Health Care Network impacts a similar patient population in the Lowcountry with private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid and those who are uninsured and underinsured. Fetter takes up residence at Jerry Zucker Middle School, at 6401 Dorchester Road in North Charleston, on Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Fetter began its partnership with the local school system at the beginning of 2018, operating clinics within the schools. Once the coronavirus shut schools down, the greater demand for its services meant that Fetter had to get creative – the result was its mobile health care unit.
“As a federally qualified health center, the majority of our patients are uninsured or underinsured. However, we are able to provide health care services to everyone,” explained Physician Assistant Heather Rocha.
Fetter offers medical care to all patients in need, regardless of their ability to pay. Those without insurance are billed on a sliding scale based on income, and insurance is billed directly for those who have it.
The Fetter mobile health care unit offers physicals, sports physicals, flu and strep swabs, blood draws, urine tests and more.
“If the school nurse encounters students who need to be caught up on immunizations, we’ll be able to get parental permission and consent, and set up an appointment with them to have those immunizations available,” said Rocha. “If the school nurse sees a child who needs to go to urgent care or the doctor for a sick visit, we’re able to see those children as well, which eliminates the need for parents to leave work.”
Fetter, which is currently working on branching out to other schools, has a second mobile unit in production.
“The response has been really amazing and overwhelming,” shared Rocha. “Our mobile unit has given us the ability to provide health care services to people who haven’t seen medical professionals for years. They see the same face every time they visit, which allows us to build a trusting relationship with them, and we’ve been able to uncover important health issues that would have otherwise been ignored.”
Fetter’s mobile outreach expands throughout other Lowcountry communities in Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester counties, working alongside community partners to offer a variety of health care services, including dental, adult primary care, pediatric care and more. Partners include municipalities and entities such as Charleston Southern University, Charleston-Dorchester Mental Health and local faith congregations.
Fetter’s latest outreach efforts also have included mobile COVID-19 vaccination and testing clinics through its mobile units. Since the start of the pandemic, Fetter has administered more than 20,000 COVID-19 tests and more than 3,000 vaccinations.
“Collaborating with local partners has positioned Fetter to provide some of our most underserved, vulnerable communities access to essential health care services through our mobile care units,” said Aretha Powers, chief executive officer of Fetter Health Care Network. “Our team is proud to answer the call to serve our friends and neighbors, and the teams that carry out our mobile care efforts are making a lasting impact on the Lowcountry.”
By Lindsay C. Bishop