A Little Van with a Big Impact

By Carmichael, Mary | Newsweek, July 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Little Van with a Big Impact


Carmichael, Mary, Newsweek


Byline: Mary Carmichael

This RV could change the face of health care in America.

There are many Boston neighborhoods where a person can get world-class health care--stately Beacon Hill, home to Massachusetts General Hospital, or the Longwood area, which houses five major hospitals and Harvard Medical School. But Roxbury, a community of 54,000 just southeast of Longwood, is better known for its health problems. Its rates of hospitalizations, emergency-room visits, and nonfatal gunshot wounds and stabbings are the city's highest. So it was a little jarring to hear one resident, 72-year-old John Jackson, recently describe a local program as the "poster child" for good health.

Jackson, who has private health insurance and a regular family physician, gets many of his medical needs met in his home neighborhood by choice. Every fourth Tuesday for the last several years he has trekked down Warren Street, ducked into an RV outside the local McDonald's, and received what amounts to a checkup, with an emphasis on keeping his blood pressure steady. To get such service from his regular doc he'd have to schedule each appointment six months in advance. Also, he would have a $10 copay. The people in the van don't charge him anything, and they let him drop in whenever he wants. This is how you get good, cost-effective, preventive health care, he says: "You drop your dignity and come to a free clinic in the ghetto."

This particular clinic--the Family Van, a nonprofit affiliated with Harvard Medical School--has been operating for 18 years now, but it is only in the last year that many people have begun to realize what Jackson figured out a long time ago: "mobile health clinics" like the Family Van don't just provide health care to people who don't have any. They also help a lot of people who can get traditional health care by other means, and they do so in an astonishingly cost-effective and efficient way. In other words, they solve one of the most pressing problems facing the new health-care-reform law: how to expand access while controlling costs. In Massachusetts the need is particularly acute; spending on health care has increased by 52 percent since the state enacted its own major health reform in 2006.

That number would be even higher if not for the Family Van. For every dollar invested in the van's operations, an estimated $36--in avoided ER visits, in prevention of diseases, in management of chronic illnesses that can spiral out of control--has been saved. The Family Van spared the health-care system more than $20 million last year, and it did that on a meager budget of half a million dollars.

When Nancy Oriol, now the dean for students at Harvard Med, founded the program, she wasn't trying to cut costs: her goal was simply to bring health care to the city's neediest. She and her cofounder, Cheryl Dorsey, hit the streets for two years surveying locals about their needs before buying an RV and outfitting it with basic medical supplies and equipment. Oriol hired some of those locals to staff the project and persuaded private investors such as Boeing to fund it.

Twelve years passed before one of the project's major funders, Putnam Investments, asked Oriol what kind of results the van might be delivering, financially speaking. "They wanted to know about the ROI--the return on investment," she says. "But I didn't know what ROI was. They don't teach you that in medical school." Oriol's students cobbled together an informal way of assessing the van's performance, but it took several years and some extensive number crunching before the Harvard group could come up with a more rigorous formula for measuring the cost-effectiveness of mobile health. …

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