How Mobile Medicine Works

Mobile Emergency Rooms

The interior of the Hackensack UMC mobile emergency unit looks the same as any ER.
The interior of the Hackensack UMC mobile emergency unit looks the same as any ER.
Hackensack UMC

Mobile emergency rooms are the rock stars of the mobile medicine niche. Conventional emergency rooms (ERs) are often crowded, less than efficient and rarely conveniently located. Ultra-equipped mobile ERs gained favor following disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, which produced so many patients that local hospitals became overwhelmed. Sort of like an ambulance on steroids, sprawling mobile ERs can usually handle anything from an ankle sprain to a surgical event. In situations where every second matters, mobile ERs can impact patient outcomes because they can be quickly set up at an emergency site to treat patients in all stages of distress. These ERs could assist with patient care after, for example, terrorist attacks, school shootings, hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes.

Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey received millions in federal funding in 2007 to develop a mobile satellite emergency department, through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Urban Areas Security Initiative. Featuring all the bells and whistles an ER doc could hope for, it boasts a 15-vehicle fleet with two 43-foot (13-meter) trailers and a 48-foot (15-meter) trailer with expandable sides. Other trucks are used to connect the mobile ER and even produce oxygen. Within this compound are seven critical care beds, an operating room, a portable field laboratory, digital X-ray and sonography systems and a pharmaceutical cache, among other features [sources: Crees, HackensackUMC].

The fleet has been used to provide support after Superstorm Sandy and to assist other hospital systems in New Jersey when their ERs have experienced high numbers of patients. The mobile emergency department even had a presence at the 2014 Super Bowl, so fans dealing with minor injuries or cold weather-related illnesses could seek treatment on-site, then hustle back to the game [source: HackensackUMC].

The Hackensack unit cost around $1.7 million to build (not including medical equipment) and $6,000 per day when operating, according to Joseph Feldman M.D., F.A.C.E.P., chairman of Emergency Services at HackensackUMC. The figure does not include staffing costs. As of 2015, there are just a few mobile ERs in the U.S. [source: HackensackUMC].

So, is it worth the cost? Dr. Feldman thinks so. "We've really proven that a system that's mobile, that's easy and quick to get out the door can make a difference in patients and family lives in a manmade or natural disaster," he says. "As we move forward, more people in areas with extreme weather or with their own medical issues worldwide will see this as being a solution to a particular type of problem."

But mobile ERs are just one of the newer options. Let's look at mobile solutions to other ailments.