Mobile unit takes kidney care to people who need it most

The Kidneymobile travels through Illinois to prevent chronic kidney disease. (Courtesy of the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois.)

By Lisa Owad
March 10, 2010
Medill News Service

Not to be confused with the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, the Kidneymobile is a mobile health care unit that offers free health screenings and education in the hopes of preventing chronic kidney disease.

The van paid a visit to Chicago Tuesday in preparation for Thursday’s World Kidney Day. Kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mobile health care units that provide screenings for vision or blood pressure may be more common, but the Kidneymobile offers a comprehensive approach to preventing kidney disease. Instead of a single screening or immunization injection, patients receive a battery of basic tests that offer a broader view of their health, all for free.

“Our usual screening consists of blood draw, urinalysis — looking for microscopic protein and blood in the urine — blood sugar, body mass index, waist circumference and blood pressure,” said Nancy Lepain, a nurse practitioner who travels with the van. “I think what we do is incredibly comprehensive, and it’s totally free.”

At least 26 million adults have chronic kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Since early stages of the disease have no symptoms, many more are at risk.

“Untreated high blood pressure and poorly controlled diabetes are the two major causes of kidney disease,” Lepain said. “Both of those diseases are easily treatable with the right medication. If we can get people with high blood pressure and diabetes well cared for, we can certainly decrease the number of people with chronic kidney disease.”

When a patient receives an abnormal test result at the screening, they are able to review the result with the on-site nurse practitioner the same day. Kidneymobile volunteers follow up later to make sure the patient is receiving care.

“We follow up with everyone that tests abnormal,” said Nicole Sisen, community programs manager at the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois. “They get a phone call four to six weeks after the screening. If they have a doctor, we ask that they make an appointment. And then we follow up again.”

Patients who don’t have insurance or a regular doctor receive referrals to places where they can get care.

Unfortunately, most patients that visit the Kidneymobile find themselves in need of further care.

“About 77 percent of the people that we screen have at least one abnormal value,” Lepain said. “And that’s excluding obesity. It’s been very few screenings that we’ve done where we haven’t found at least one person with undiagnosed diabetes. The numbers are very telling.”

The National Kidney Foundation of Illinois, which introduced the Kidneymobile in 2005, partners with community organizations to spread news of their visits. Thousands of people throughout Illinois have taken advantage of the Kidneymobile’s services.

“We usually have a great turnout for the screenings,” Lepain said. “I would say we average 75 to 100 people [each screening].”

“We take great pride in it,” Sisen said. “It’s the only traveling educational unit for kidney disease in the nation.”

While anyone is welcome at the free screenings, the National Kidney Foundation tries to reach those who are most in need.

“We try to locate our screening in areas that have large minority populations,” Lepain said. “African-Americans and Latinos are at much higher risk for developing kidney disease based on the incidence of diabetes and hypertension.”

For those who don’t have health insurance or can’t afford to visit a doctor, the Kidneymobile offers a chance to stay on top of their health. Chicago resident Juan Ramirez, 42, attended a Kidneymobile screening Tuesday to check up on his blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

“I have health insurance,” Ramirez said, “but they raised it so high. I have to pay a $700 or $800 deductible the first time I use it. For me it’s hard, because I just make minimum wage. Every time I see an opportunity like this, I prefer to take advantage of it.”

The Kidneymobile isn’t the only mobile health care unit making the rounds in Chicago. The University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital has a Pediatric Mobile Medical Unit and the Mobile C.A.R.E. Foundation operates Asthma Vans throughout the city. Norwegian American Hospital’s Care-A-Van brings pediatric care to the children of Humboldt Park.

Related Links:
Learn more about the Kidneymobile and how to request a visit
The Kidneymobile’s 2010 schedule
Care-A-Van takes free health care to the streets

See this article at the Medill News Service

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