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Mobile Health Clinic Engages Puerto Rico’s Next Generation of Healthcare Workers

Ponce Mobile Health Van 1

When students at Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico held a mobile health clinic in the town of La Playa de Ponce, they took the vitals of 39 patients. Many had uncontrolled diabetes, some exhibited signs of dehydration, and one had a life-threateningly low hemoglobin level.

The patient with low hemoglobin was immediately referred to the Emergency Room—but the fact that the condition was not spotted earlier is exactly why Ponce Medical School Foundation began its emergency services mobile health clinic, Clinica del Sur, in the first place.

Puerto Rico’s healthcare system has struggled for years. It struggled before dozens of earthquakes in 2020 left thousands of residents sleeping in tents and cars for months, and it struggled before Hurricane Maria wiped out the island’s power grid in 2017, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without power nearly five months later.

Most of Puerto Rico’s residents are covered by Medicaid or Medicare, but historically, the US territory has received less federal funding than US states. Healthcare costs have been passed on to healthcare providers and patients, putting a strain on the system. This, combined with Puerto Rico’s debt-crisis, has caused many doctors to leave the island for the continental US, where they can double their income. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of doctors in Puerto Rico dropped by 36%. Hurricane Maria in 2017 and subsequent natural disasters have only added to the exodus.

The result has been an understaffed and overwhelmed health care system that has left Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents without access to adequate and timely healthcare. It’s not uncommon for people to wait over 6 months for an appointment with a specialist. During that time, patients’ conditions progress, treatment options disappear, and health outcomes become bleaker.

Clinica del Sur formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as a way of providing medical care to earthquake victims while strengthening Puerto Rico’s healthcare infrastructure. BBF Global Relief helped fund the van, in addition to undertaking other relief projects that provided hospitals with durable medical equipment and funded solar panel installations in emergency rooms and vaccine clinics in southern and central Puerto Rico.

Using the mobile health van, medical providers and students from Ponce Medical School Foundation and Ponce Health Sciences University provided medical care to hurricane victims at no cost to the patient. The van continued to serve as a vital resource to the community after multiple earthquakes in 2020. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Clinica del Sur adapted to become a mobile vaccination center in remote parts of southern Puerto Rico.

Students from Ponce Health Sciences University discuss patients’ health at a mobile health clinic held in La Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico. | Photo courtesy of Ponce Medical School Foundation.

Recently, however, demand for the clinic’s services has grown significantly, and patients have had to wait anywhere from 6 to 12 months for an appointment.

Ponce Medical School Foundation has responded to the heightened demand for services by creating a program that gives students at Ponce Health Sciences University an opportunity to become directly involved in the clinic’s operations.

Under the supervision of university faculty, students gain hands-on clinical experience by discussing medical conditions with patients and taking vitals. By working alongside leaders in underserved communities, students also expand their cultural competency and gain more empathy.

The program aims to not only provide patients with quicker access to care in the city of Ponce, but to create a generation of healthcare workers who feel connected to Puerto Rico’s communities and committed to providing care on the island. 

BBF Global Relief has given Ponce Medical Foundation a grant that will fund the new mobile health clinic program for one year, providing the clinic with the resources it needs to better serve Ponce’s 200,000 residents—nearly half of whom live below the poverty threshold. For some of these patients, accessing the clinic will mean the difference between life and death.

Photo Caption from Above: Students from Ponce Health Sciences University stand next to a mobile health van used to provide care to underserved communities in Puerto Rico. | Photo courtesy of Ponce Medical School Foundation.

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