Mobile health: Saving money, improving access

Mobile devices have been used by doctors and health centers for several years now, becoming a mainstay of care in many of the country's most populated regions. Now, Harvard Medical School's "Family Van," a medical center that travels to underserved communities like Dorchester, Roxbury and East Boston, is helping low-income neighborhoods to receive top-notch medical treatments without having to show up to the hospital. Based on current research, the Family Van has improved cardiovascular health and lowered the incidence of fatal deaths in this population over the past two years.

According to Community Health, a program of Boston's NPR news station (WBUR), the van cares for patients who have the highest rates of preventable illnesses, hospitalizations and avoidable emergency room visits. These also happen to be some of the neighborhoods most affected by the current flu epidemic.

Communities help one another
The Family Van is staffed by community health workers, doctors and nurses, who aim to bring medical tools to people with low resource access rather than forcing them to pay for train or bus fare.The areas that the Family Van visits are considered by the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration to be medically underserved.

A recent study published in the journal Health Affairs claims that the Family Van saves money, in large part by preventing needless ER visits. Patients who visited the Van were able to lower their blood pressures as well as receive treatments for several other conditions that are simple to manage, but may necessitate costly medications or medical visits.

Mobile health clinics are now in practice elsewhere throughout the country and also in Europe and Asia. A new "Mobile 1000" van is currently operating in several of India's slums, helping to diagnose and treat conditions that are widespread in the population.

Saving lives, cutting costs
According to the Health Affairs study, the van also offered temporary treatments for those with diabetes, obesity or maternal health concerns. The study found that of the 5,900 patients who were visited by the Family Van between 2010 and 2012, the incidence of myocardial infarction was estimated at about 12 percent for persons aged 55 to 64. Following the van's visits, patients previously at risk for heart conditions had a 48.8 percent reduction in the prevalence of cardiovascular ailments.

In Massachusetts, each avoidable emergency room visit costs on average $474, according to Harvard Medical School. Total savings for both hospitals and patients are estimated at $1.4 million, from 2,851 emergency room visits that were avoided using the Family Van.