The Family Van Makes Boston a Healthier City

Outside the Dudley Square Station passengers ebb and flow. No city bus idles for long under the metal awning—except for one, with wrap-around blue trim. A woman steps off board.

“Take it easy, Aunty Rai!” she calls. She pockets a small piece of paper, a note of her blood pressure and cholesterol.

She had just paid a visit to The Family Van.

Founded in 1992 by current Medical School Dean for Students Nancy E. Oriol, The Family Van hits the streets of Boston six days a week.

The HMS-affiliated mobile health clinic provides free health screenings for blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol, glaucoma, pregnancy, and HIV counseling for Boston’s most impoverished residents.

From its inception, The Family Van has provided an alternative to the traditional model of health care delivery. Rethinking the doctor-patient relationship by bringing service providers to local communities, The Family Van staff consider their method an important innovation in medicine.

“Aunty Rai”—Manager of Direct Service Rainelle Walker-White—has ridden the van for the past 18 years, providing care in Dorchester, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roxbury, and East Boston.

“Mobile is beneficial, mobile is keeping people alive,” she says. “What better way to serve your people than where they are?”

Oriol says she was first spurred “to meet people where they are” during her work as an anesthesiologist in 1989.

She says an experience treating a poor, pregnant woman—who ignored headaches for weeks until having a seizure—spurred her to think about barriers to medical care.

“[The woman] told me after her surgery that she ‘hadn’t felt that her headaches were important enough to bother her doctor.’ She did not want to appear stupid,” says Oriol.

Searching for a solution, Oriol ventured into Boston’s forgotten neighborhoods and asked residents about their challenges in accessing a doctor.

Through these conversations, she conceived of a “user-friendly” model of mobile care.

“There is a reticence in every person’s soul when they begin to feel sick—it is human nature,” Oriol says. “Mobile clinics overcome geography, but they also overcome this reticence.”

Oriol adds that communities view The Family Van as a “one of their own—a ‘knowledgeable neighbor.’”

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