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Rural Health Information Hub

Mobile Units Model

Rural programs can improve access to mental health services by using mobile units or mobile clinics. Mobile units are vans or other vehicles staffed with medical personnel and equipped to offer onsite mental health services. Mental health mobile units often have private rooms for counseling, harm reduction tools, and other supplies like clothing and hygiene items.

Mental health mobile unit programs can provide a wide range of services, such as crisis intervention, case management, individual and family therapy, suicide prevention, patient education, peer support, and medication management. Mental health mobile units may also offer primary care services. Some may be equipped to deliver telemedicine and telehealth-based services and treatments.

This model increases rural patients' access to mental health services by allowing mental health providers to travel to patients, reducing the need for patients to travel long distances to receive care.

Examples of Rural Mobile Unit Programs

  • The Highway to Hope Project offers immediate psychiatric care to adults and children in Charleston and Dorchester counties in South Carolina. The mobile response clinic provides integrated mental health and primary care services to people ages 3 and older, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. The mobile response clinic offers acute care, primary care, mental health counseling, and psychiatric services. The mobile unit is staffed by a care team of mental health professionals and nurses.
  • The University of Tennessee Health Science Center's College of Nursing Mobile Health Unit (MHU) services Lake and Lauderdale counties in rural Tennessee to improve access to care for residents in need. The MHU offers a variety of services including integrated primary and behavioral healthcare, chronic disease management, HIV care, and prenatal care. In addition to improving access to care, the program aims to enhance the nursing workforce and build their capacity to better serve the unique needs of rural patients.
  • RHA Health Services launched two mobile clinics to serve residents from rural counties in eastern North Carolina. These mobile clinics provide mental health and substance use disorder services to improve access to behavioral healthcare in underserved, rural communities. In the future, RHA Health Services seeks to expand its mobile clinic services by offering medication for opioid use disorder, physical health services, and vaccinations.

Implementation Considerations

Stigma can be a barrier to receiving mental healthcare in rural communities. Rural mental health programs looking to implement a mobile unit should consider integrating their services with primary care and other health services. Several successful rural mobile clinics focus on providing care for the whole person and addressing all healthcare needs. Additionally, branding that overtly displays mental health services may deter community members from seeking services. Carefully designing the exterior of a mobile unit and curating branding materials or wraps on units can help reduce the fear of stigma or judgment.

Considerations for operating a mobile mental health unit differ from those of a brick-and-mortar clinic. For example, mobile units need to be located on flat surfaces. Parking on uneven surfaces can be dangerous for mobile unit staff and community members. Additionally, rural mental health programs may need to adjust hours of operation and location during inclement weather. Staying on top of mobile unit maintenance, such as emptying septic tanks and fixing hydraulics, is another consideration for operating a mobile mental health unit. Identifying and training staff to work on a mobile unit and oversee maintenance may pose challenges in rural communities with staffing shortages.

Offering telehealth services on mental health mobile units may require expenses and equipment, including videoconferencing, Wi-Fi, and other telehealth installation needs.

For more guidance on implementing a mobile unit program model, see the Rural Services Integration Toolkit or the Rural Medication for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD) Toolkit.

Program Clearinghouse Examples

Resources to Learn More

A Digitally Capable Mobile Health Clinic to Improve Rural Health Care in America: A Pilot Quality Improvement Study
Describes the development and implementation of a mobile health clinic offering in-person and virtual care in rural southern Minnesota.
Author(s): Igbal, A., Anil, G., Bhandari, P., et al.
Citation: Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes, 6(5), 475–483
Date: 9/2022