Pictured above: Direct Service Team in front of the Family Van
By Janae Briggs
Rose Service Learning Fellow
SM Candidate, Department of Epidemiology
“I’m honestly open to filling in wherever you need help,” I said in the Spring 2023 semester over my first Zoom call with Mollie Williams, the Executive Director of The Family Van. The Family Van, a mobile clinic in Boston, has traveled across the city over the last 30 years, delivering primary care services and performing basic screenings to various low-income and minority groups. Over time, they have adapted their services to best-fit community needs. Recently, their focus has been on diabetes and hypertension prevention and mental health promotion.
Although my skill set in data analysis and visualization, which I have developed as a Master of Science student in infectious disease epidemiology, presented a major potential asset for the clinic, the project proposal did not exactly align with my research interests. I was a little nervous – as a prospective Ph.D. applicant, I had to consider how to tie this project into my career narrative, and the answer was not immediately clear. Nevertheless, I felt so strongly about the mission of The Family Van that I pursued this internship with an open mind, wanting to give back to the Boston area. What I did not expect was for this project to shape my trajectory, hone my interests in healthcare delivery and implementation science, and more deeply establish a community of my own.
Standing outside the mobile clinic in Nubian Square every week, engaging with community health workers, undergraduate interns, and residents, I began to grasp just how instrumental The Family Van was to the health and well-being of the people of Boston. I remember when one particular resident came up to our table. “Is Rai in?” he asked. “Yeah she’s in the van,” the interns and I responded as he headed to the entrance—everyone was always looking for Rainelle, one of the many dedicated community health workers. When passing by the van, residents always paused, taking a moment out of their day to say hi and briefly catch up. I later learned that this particular community member had asked Rainelle to write him a letter of recommendation years ago to acquire housing for him and his daughter. They still have the apartment to this day.
As I watched health professionals like Rainelle engage with those around them, it was obvious how The Family Van had become so deeply rooted in the daily life of residents, yet I was shocked how it had remained nearly invisible to the medical and scientific community. Delving further into my summer projects, I explored the research surrounding mobile clinics and their impact on communities across the United States.
My realization that these clinics present an underappreciated solution to healthcare delivery strengthened my commitment to advocating for the implementation of innovative solutions to address health inequities. I learned and witnessed how mobile clinics are like the roots of a tree, hidden from plain view but fundamental to the function and survival of life around them. Even in contexts of existing healthcare infrastructure, these mobile units serve a role in reducing Emergency Department visits and increasing cost savings while providing quality care.1,2 Moreover, they often serve high-risk groups that frequently experience stigmatization, fear, or a history of medical mistreatment within the traditional healthcare system.3 How, then, had my public health education failed to even once mention such a promising and proven solution to issues of equity in healthcare delivery? Impassioned with this revelation, I wrote a commentary describing the role of mobile clinics in mitigating low birth weight events among high-risk groups in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson and admist a lack of Medicaid expansion.
As I begin my second year of my Master of Science program, I am integrating this fresh perspective on healthcare delivery into my research and applying cutting-edge epidemiologic methods to improve public health programs and interventions. Having reflected on my experience, I see now that my time sitting in The Family Van not only allowed me to integrate in and contribute to a new community but also made me a better epidemiologist.
- Hill CF, Powers BW, Jain SH, Bennet J, Vavasis A, Oriol NE. Mobile Health Clinics in the Era of Reform. 2014;20. Accessed September 7, 2023. https://www.ajmc.com/view/mobile-health-clinics-in-the-era-of-reform
- Song Z, Hill C, Bennet J, Vavasis A, Oriol NE. Mobile Clinic In Massachusetts Associated With Cost Savings From Lowering Blood Pressure And Emergency Department Use. Health Aff Proj Hope. 2013;32(1):36-44. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2011.1392
- Malone NC, Williams MM, Smith Fawzi MC, et al. Mobile health clinics in the United States. Int J Equity Health. 2020;19(1):40. doi:10.1186/s12939-020-1135-7