The Loop

The Future of Mobile Health Clinics

Filed under: Benefits

Much like telehealth, mobile health clinics (MHC) remain an underutilized resource for serving healthcare needs in the US. A mobile health clinic is basically a primary care physician’s office located inside a large van or recreational vehicle. It is equipped with all the necessary supplies and equipment for medical staff to provide routine health exams, consultations, and treatment.

The greatest advantage is that an MHC is mobile – it can go where patients are instead of vice versa. This makes it an ideal solution for underserved communities that are less likely to access medical care due to mobility issues, lack of time and transportation. Many clinics are sponsored by non-profit institutions, so they are free or low-cost to patients. In many cases, mobile clinics are dispatched to community centers such as schools, libraries, local businesses, and other organizations in order to provide care for low-income demographics.

In fact, it is because MHCs are positioned in familiar neighborhood areas that the vans have come to represent a blend of social and healthcare space. They are often manned by qualified healthcare professionals who share the same background, ethnicity, culture and language as the communities they serve. This can help make the intimate van setting more welcoming and less intimidating for the targeted population.

Today, there are approximately 2,000 mobile health clinics in the US, and they serve an average of 6.5 million visits a year. 

Measurable Benefits

Similar to stationary clinics or the typical doctor’s office, MHCs are not equipped to perform  serious treatments such as surgery. However, their role in the medical care continuum is to provide services that may prevent major interventions in the future. MHCs mainly offer preventative health screenings, chronic disease management, and urgent care for the onset of a mild illness or injury.

Also, MHCs help bridge a trust between patients and the healthcare system, many of whom have had very little exposure to healthcare and are intimidated by the cost and typical office setting. In fact, while telehealth increased exponentially during the first year of the pandemic, it won’t work for everyone or every situation. Most people prefer an in-person visit, so MHCs offer the opportunity for a physical exam without the normal costs and barriers associated with a brick-and-mortar office.

Specialized Needs

An MHC can deliver needed services close to the doorstep of targeted patients, often without fees and complex paperwork. As such, they are effective at reaching underserved populations who may not have the time, resources, or motivation to travel to a traditional clinic. For example, an MHC may schedule regular visits to locales near homeless encampments and shelters to address common ailments such as wounds and skin infections, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic pain, foot problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, and seizures.

As the Medicare population continues to grow, more MHCs may be deployed to reach elderly seniors who are no longer able to drive, have mobility challenges, suffer from isolation,  cognitive decline, or other reasons that prevent them from leaving home to attend a medical appointment.

There are presently MHCs that specialize in certain types of medical care. For example, “Breathmobiles” is a program that serves children with asthma, and mobile mammography vans offer screenings for women in underserved populations. The future of mobile health clinics may offer specialized vans for patients who suffer from specific chronic conditions, such as diabetes or COPD.

In fact, the convenience and reduced logistics afforded by mobile care may be extended beyond low-income patients, to those with health insurance who have busy schedules and difficulty finding time to schedule regular office visits.

Cost Savings

Because these are valuable – and underutilized – health services, research shows that MHCs  provide a significant impact to population health. They offer the potential for greater health outcomes and substantial cost savings for the healthcare industry. Studies have revealed that mobile health clinics reduce avoidable emergency room (ER) use, which is one of the most expensive locations to receive medical care.

Not only are ER visits reduced by MHC coverage, but emergency department resources can be better allocated to patients who actually require emergency care. This also helps reduce costs and poorer health outcomes associated with delays in receiving care.


One of the problems commonly cited for mobile health clinics is that they do not help facilitate continuity of care, since most are not fully incorporated into the healthcare system. Clearly, many of the underserved population do not have records at local doctor’s office, specialists,  hospitals, laboratories and pharmacies. However, developing a universal electronic health records system – while adding an administrative layer that could incur more cost – would help MHC clients receive better levels of care.

The cost of purchasing and maintaining suitable vehicles is another barrier to widespread use of MHCs. The total cost for a single Mobile Medical Clinic runs about $450,000 a year, which includes the cost of the vehicle, its maintenance, staff salaries, and all healthcare equipment and supplies.

Speaking of staffing, studies show that about a third of MHCs have trouble recruiting and retaining health workers that represent cultural components of the community they serve – which is attributed to a large part of their acceptance and success. In addition to the appropriate training and credentials, candidates also must be comfortable working in a small space and be willing to accept the risks of going into underserved neighborhoods.

With that said, location also can be a challenge. MHCs are most effective when positioned in an underserved area, but it can be difficult to find a safe location to operate regularly and for hours at a time – especially in urban areas. There is also the issue that many communities do not cherish the idea of hosting a safety-net clinic in their area out of fear that it will attract homeless people and drug users.

However, if there is one thing the pandemic has exposed in the healthcare industry, it is the  intense spotlight on the issue of healthcare inequity among the “haves” and “have nots.” MHCs offer an effective and relatively low-cost option to serve an urgent need for tailored healthcare interventions to improve health outcomes for the underserved.

As more MHCs are deployed, there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates they provide a successful and cost-effective model of healthcare delivery. With the goals of reducing costs, improving health outcomes, and universal access at the top of the healthcare industry’s priorities, mobile health clinics are poised to become more abundant and serve larger portions of the US population moving forward.

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