Utah Partners for Health offers community health services with its mobile clinics

Story and multimedia by SHELLY GUILLORY

Volunteer Laura Pexton recounts a story of a mother who arrived at a mobile health clinic with her two young sons, both of whom had fevers, runny noses and coughs. The 20-year-old mother told Pexton, a family nurse practitioner who volunteers with the mobile clinics one to two times per week, that she suffered from asthma and also felt sick. When Pexton placed her stethoscope on the woman’s chest, she noticed the mother moved almost no air in her lungs.

Pexton grabbed a peak flow meter — a device that tests lung capacity and is used to monitor asthma. The meter barely budged when Pexton tested the woman, indicating that her asthma had progressed to a dangerous level. After two nebulizer treatments at the clinic, the woman’s lungs sounded better. Pexton sent the mother home with prescriptions for medications to better control her asthma.

“She would have been someone who ended up in the emergency room and would have ended up hospitalized to get her asthma stable and under control,” Pexton said.  “She was able to come in, we offered her services and kept her out of the emergency room.”

The Utah Partners for Health, started in 2003 and based out of Magna, works within 17 clinics in Salt Lake County, all of which are “for-profit.” Healthcare professionals donate charity care to offer services for those who need treatment.

At these “for-profit” clinics, patients pay a small portion of the services rendered, which include acute care services, dental care, chronic illness management and mental health services. Patients can also receive preventative care, such as well child checks, breast exams and tobacco cessation counseling.

Since 2007, UPFH has also provided access to free health services with its mobile clinics, held three times a week. These mobile clinics are reserved for patients who cannot afford to pay the small fee at the “for-profit” clinics. The mobile clinics rotate locations throughout the Valley and serve residents in Salt Lake, including Glendale and other west-side neighborhoods, who do not have access to healthcare due to cultural or language barriers and lack of insurance or low income.

The mobile clinics operate out of rooms in community-based organizations, such as Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, Mountain View Elementary School, Hser Ner Moo Community Learning Center and Guadalupe Schools.

Executive Director Kurt Micka said mobile clinics save Utah’s healthcare system hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

“Most of the patients we see wouldn’t see a doctor at all, or [they would] go to an expensive emergency room when conditions have worsened,” he said. “Our cost last year was $18.23 per patient visit, compared to $1,200 for a typical non-critical emergency room visit.”

Micka said the mobile clinics offer most primary care services found in doctor’s offices and have recently started offering eye examinations. Free influenza vaccinations are also available one or two times a year. Patients who want to be seen for primary care services can either walk in or make an appointment. But because of demand, appointments must be made in advance for eye examinations.

At a recent clinic in the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, 1234 S. Main St., five healthcare professionals treated 71 patients out of two rooms in the fourth-floor library. Unlike Pexton, who volunteers her time, Micka said many of the healthcare professionals who work at mobile clinics are paid.

“The model works best when providers are paid,” he said. “In that way, they consider it a job and always show up. They don’t get distracted with other options with their time.”

UPFH receives funding from grants and mobile clinic supporters, including United Way, American Express, Regence Foundation, UBS Bank and Walmart.

UPFH Associate Executive Director Amy Reed Trebella said many patients who visit the mobile clinics do not understand how the healthcare system in Utah works. She said if the mobile clinics didn’t exist, many people would resort to using expensive resources.

“They go to the emergency room, especially with [the refugee population],” she said. “We find that there are certain communities that come to rely on the ER, which we are trying to alleviate.”

Patients who are treated may be sent home with prescriptions, which can often cost hundreds of dollars without insurance. But Trebella said the clinic has several options for people who need prescription medications.

“We have the Partnership for Prescription Assistance  we can refer people to,” she said. “But for the most part our providers try to write generic prescriptions because they are more affordable. Walmart has a $4 program.  So do Smith’s and other pharmacies. That tends to work very well.”

Trebella also said that although mobile clinics are not set up to follow patients long-term, many people show up every few months and treat the mobile clinics as their primary care physicians.

In addition to her story about the young mother with asthma, Pexton recalls a man who  was diagnosed with diabetes at a clinic. Doctors gave him a glucose meter to check his blood sugar. He also received education about how to manage his diabetes. Two months later he showed up to the mobile clinic with a record book that contained daily blood pressure and blood sugar readings he had tracked since his diagnosis. His blood pressure and blood sugar were normal and he weighed 15 pounds less. He told Pexton he changed his diet and quit drinking soda to help manage his illness.

“It was wonderful to see someone take the information and make changes,” Pexton said. “In that case he was given a prescription for refills on his medication and told to follow-up in three months.”