To make health care more accessible, mobile van travels to communities that need it the most

The Family Van parked in East Boston. Credit: Anna Bloxham.

On a Wednesday morning at Liberty Plaza in East Boston, a colorful van is parked in the lot with a tiny sandwich board beside it reading “Free Health Screenings.” The people inside are volunteers awaiting clients who will enter the van and ask to get their blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels checked.

The Family Van, a program affiliated with the Harvard Medical School, started visiting East Boston at least five years ago, according to executive director Mollie Williams. She said an increase in Latin American immigrants and North African immigrants made them realize there was an unmet need for health care services in that neighborhood. Like American born clients, many from immigrant communities have poor health due to lots of stress but have added barriers that can make navigating the health care system more difficult.

“For a long time we’ve noticed an increase in chronic disease – so things like high blood pressure, diabetes. And these problems just run rampant in the communities that we serve because they are easily controlled but are aggravated by stress,” Williams said.

In recent years, Williams said she and volunteers on the van, who screen clients for diabetes, glaucoma and mental health issues, have seen much more stress reported by immigrants and non-native English speakers. For East Boston clients, a lot of that stress, Williams said, stems from the current political climate and the “increased enforcement of immigration” and “general hostility towards immigrants,” which adds to the everyday struggles of those trying to afford to live in Boston.

Mollie Williams, executive director of The Family Van. Credit: Anna Bloxham.

The Family Van’s motto,  “Wellness Within Reach,” doesn’t just refer to the clinic’s mobility, but its efforts to help non-native English speakers navigate the health care process. Multi-lingual volunteers like Asmae Lazaar, who speaks Arabic, are a step towards making the motto a reality.

Though the van has a presence in the Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods in Boston, East Boston tends to be one of the busiest. What all four locations have in common though is clients who are struggling with depression and anxiety, Williams said.

“Right now we are actually working with our existing van to expand our services to include mental health,” Williams said. “In addition to screening for diabetes and hypertension and a variety of physical health problems we also screen for depression on the van, and especially at this time when immigrants and communities of color are facing increased hostility.

“We’re working to expand the offerings that we have on the van related to mental health and have a few funders who are interested in helping us do that but don’t have money in the bank yet,” Williams said.

Sandhira “Sandy” Wijayaratne, third-year Harvard Medical student and volunteer, right, prepares Spare Change News reporter Jordan Frias for a screening. Credit: Anna Bloxham.

On the morning Spare Change News visited the van, a third-year medical student from Harvard greeted us and asked us basic questions about our health, including age, ethnicity and most recent ER visits.

The student, Sandhira Wijayaratne, (who went by Sandy) checked the blood pressure and blood sugar level of this Spare Change News reporter. Earlier, another volunteer had a client read an eye chart from a distance while covering one eye – each of these activities occurring on the van.

The mobile van model has actually been around in Boston for approximately 27 years, Williams said, and was originally affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

According to Williams,the van measures its success by the amount of people that are kept out of the hospital. And studies from Harvard Medical School have confirmed that the van is doing just.

“About 90 percent of the people we see are people of color, about 90 percent rely on public insurance, so MassHealth or Medicaid or Medicare,” Williams said. “If we can keep people out of the emergency room that is definitely a measure of success because emergency room visits are expensive and time consuming and not the best place to get care for most issues that aren’t urgent.”

William’s said most clients also have had negative experiences with the health care system. Providing referrals to people on the van can be a huge help, especially when chronic conditions are detected and treated early on.

“We do a lot of referrals and we often help people figure out how to appropriately use the health care system,” Williams said. “It can be really confusing, especially for somebody who is not from the United States or not from Boston.”

What is not confusing is where one falls on blood sugar and blood pressure charts.

Left to right, Rainelle Walker-White, assistant director of the Family Van, and volunteer Asmae Lazaar. Credit: Anna Bloxham.

Volunteers on The Family Van can easily show a client whether they’re at risk for hypertension or diabetes, and provide their clients with small business card that contains all of the information that they can then give to their primary care doctor.

The hope is that these clients are made aware of their health so they can modify their behavior and see a doctor if necessary, especially those who find it hard to see a doctor on the regular.

Williams said you might describe these clients as the working poor. And many of these clients, Williams said, are experiencing social isolation.

“What I see is people who are just eager to connect with another human being, and so much of our healthcare system now has become electronic,” Williams said. “I see people really missing that and coming to us for that. And we’re not afraid to give you a hug or touch your hand when you’re sitting across from us and connect with you beyond just being a number [or] a name on a form.”

A weekly schedule of The Family Van stops can be found here.

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.