One year in, Mobile Clinic moving forward at full speed

Dec. 31, 2013 @ 08:57 AM

Last January a brightly painted, 22-ton, 45-foot long bus pulled up outside a school in Caldwell County for the first time, with no intention of picking up or dropping off any students.

The bus is not equipped with rows of seats, but with examination tables, a centrifuge and other medical equipment. It’s the West Caldwell Health Council’s Mobile Medical Clinic – more like a rolling doctor’s office than a bus.

The Mobile Medical Clinic visits four Caldwell County K-8 schools each week, visiting Collettsville School, Happy Valley School, Oak Hill and Kings Creek Schools Monday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each week.

When classes resume Monday, the bus will visit its first school of 2014 and mark its one-year anniversary, having seen 483 patients in 2013.

Tom McRary, assistant administrator at West Caldwell Health, saw an opportunity in 2010 in the form of a grant, offered by the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration.

West Caldwell won a $411,000 grant, and McRary began the process of getting the bus built and on duty, working with schools and sending out requests for proposals to several companies before deciding on Matthews Specialty Vehicles in Greensboro.

In October 2012, the bus officially became the property of West Caldwell Health Council, but due to Thanksgiving and winter breaks in schools, it wasn’t until the start of 2013 that the bus made its first school visit.

The bus’s mission, written on its side, is “Healthy and ready to learn.”

“When a child is sick and in school, through no fault of their own, they can’t learn as well,” McRary said. Fever, coughing, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms can cause students’ performance to slip, even to where the student is being disruptive in class.

Also, McRary said, the instances of sick children at schools have been increasing due to lifestyle choices and social issues today, and West Caldwell’s bus is the organization’s response to that need.

But the clinic doesn’t treat only students. Faculty and staff also take advantage of the doctor’s office in the parking lot, so the average age of the clinic's patients is 28.

The key is preventative rather than episodic care, McRary said, or keeping up with your health rather than visiting the doctor only when something goes wrong.

The health bus is also billed as an affordable option to an urgent-care clinic visit, with insured patients generally charged only a co-payment, the same for children on Medicaid. For the uninsured, it’s a $20-$40 sliding-scale fee.

Going into 2014, McRary plans to explore additional uses for the mobile clinic, whether that be adding to the number of schools that the bus visits or adding such things as a one-day-per-week visit at a soup kitchen, church or homeless shelter.

When thinking about new applications for the mobile clinic, McRary said he keeps coming back to something a departed friend used to say, “The sun doesn’t shine on the same dog every day.”

“Well, the sun is shining on us right now,” he said. “So what can I do with these opportunities today?”