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Mobile Health Program Helps Chicago Reach Underserved Adolescents

A new mHealth program uses a mobile health unit to reach adolescents in Chicago's urban neighborhoods with sexual health education and services.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Mobile health units are being deployed across the country to address a number of mHealth and population health concerns, from women’s health, dental services and flu coverage to healthcare services for schools, underserved and transient communities and the homeless.

Now a pilot program launched at the University of Chicago finds that this mobile health strategy can have a real impact on adolescents looking for sexual health services.

More than 90 percent of adolescents visiting UChicago Medicine Medicine’s Corner Children’s mobile health unit during a recent program covering several urban neighborhoods said the resource gave them a safe and secure opportunity to obtain sexual and reproductive healthcare services, according to surveys conducted by UChicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3). Almost 90 percent said the service offered them privacy, while 92 percent said they’d recommend the service to friends.

“It means not only were you satisfied with your own experience, but you’d endorse it,” Dr. Melissa Gilliam, an adolescent obstetrician-gynecologist who founded Ci3 in 2012, told Chicago public radio station WTTW. “You’d recommend it to somebody else.”

“To see that you could implement these services so smoothly and with such high satisfaction for us was a ringing endorsement of this approach,” she added.

As detailed in the March 2018 issue of The Journal of School Health, the pilot program served 123 adolescents, predominately African-American and Latino and between the ages of 14 and 21. The mobile health unit was staffed with providers trained to administer contraceptive counseling and provide emergency contraception, oral contraceptive pills and depot-medroxyprogesterone, in addition to sexual and reproductive health counseling.

The program was developed out of a need to reach underserved adolescents with resources they might not otherwise be able to access, either because of travel and availability or a hesitance to discuss sensitive issues in the school nurse’s office or a crowded clinic or hospital.

“This is something that young people wanted and needed,” Gilliam said, noting that reproductive health problems add to the nation’s healthcare bill, strain public health resources and often keep kids out of school.

And that’s where mobile health units and mHealth resources can prove helpful. By delivering targeted services to populations who might stay away from healthcare providers, these programs aim to tackle barriers to access and improve health outcomes – improved cancer diagnoses and treatments, better HIV and AIDS education and treatment, fewer health emergencies that wind up in the local ER, and fewer sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies.

Gilliam, who has been working for several years on programs to push these services out to adolescents, says mobile health units are an important tool. She counts roughly 2,000 active units across the US, and says they show “great promise in reducing trips to the emergency department and providing preventive care.” But very few provide adolescent sexual and reproductive health care.

According to surveys conducted of the Ci3 program’s participants, more than half said they were interested in learning more about sexual health through the mobile health program, and more than half said they were likely to obtain birth control through the program.

Like other telehealth and mHealth programs geared toward adolescents, Gilliam said the program’s future depends on tailoring healthcare services to meet the needs of the patient, rather than deciding what the patient needs and presenting a program.

“We’re putting much more emphasis on hearing from and designing with adolescents,” she told WTTW Radio. “We’re really trying to figure out how we can think of the service model for these young people that will really help them improve their sexual health outcomes.”

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