A new partnership between St. Catherine's Center for Children in Albany and the Whitney M. Young Jr. Health Center is bringing health care right where it's most needed, using a kind of doctor's office on wheels.

The health center's mobile health unit is now parking on the third Tuesday of each month outside the city's Marillac Center, an emergency shelter specifically for homeless families that is the only shelter of its kind in Albany County.

The mobile health unit, which looks similar to a small camper, has an exam room and a waiting area. For the last two months, the mobile unit has spent one day a month parked in the Marillac Center's lot, waiting to see patients who live in the center.

The Marillac Center serves 400-500 people every year, housing up to two dozen families at a time. Families dealing with homelessness usually don't have the ability to get established with a doctor.

The new, two-year partnership is "getting people to think more about prevention," said Louisa Marra, director of homeless services for St. Catherine's Center. "One of the things we know about when people become homeless [is that] there is a disconnect with health care."

In fact, homelessness and health care are strongly connected, said Ms. Marra.

"It's a domino effect," she said: People fall into a cycle of getting sick, not being able to go to work and not being able to afford health care or other necessities.

LaTasha Turner, a physician's assistant for Whitney Young and the PA in the mobile unit on the day The Evangelist visited, noted that just getting established with a healthcare provider is a significant step for someone who's living on the margins.

Many homeless people lose touch with medical care because they move around so often, she said. "I've had patients who come and haven't seen a doctor in years."

The mobile unit is equipped to do physicals, give vaccines, see sick patients, perform minor wound care and do urinalysis and testing for diabetes, pregnancy, strep throat, HIV and high cholesterol.

Although Ms. Turner noted that many people who come to the unit are seeking vaccines or dealing with high blood pressure or pre-diabetic conditions, the staff can refer patients to specialists if need be.

One of the goals of the partnership is that, when the patients move out of the Marillac shelter, the Whitney Young Center will still be able to continue caring for them.

"We're giving access to people who don't have constant access" to health care, said Trista Mitchell, a medical assistant for the mobile unit.

Ms. Turner noted that it's efforts like this partnership that made her want to become a PA in the first place.

"Health care is important for a meaningful life," she said. "I don't do this because it's just a job. I like helping the low-income population because they just need more help."

Ms. Mitchell told The Evangelist that the mobile unit can empower people to take ownership of their own self-care.

"Anytime a patients calls to follow up is huge to me. They are really starting to take charge," she remarked. Both Ms. Turner and Ms. Mitchell noted that the mobile unit may take time to reach its full potential. On the day The Evangelist visited the Marillac Center, only two patients had been seen by the mobile unit.

"Some people are put off because it's on wheels," said Ms. Turner, joking that patients might be scared of the unit driving away with them in the exam room. But St. Catherine's and Whitney Young agree that, while they have high hopes for increased use of the mobile health unit, helping even one patient makes their job worthwhile.