Community Impact Series -- Children's Health Project

New Orleans, La. –

In the course of her day, New Orleans pediatrician Dr. Alina Olteanu will conduct the usual array of screenings and immunizations her young patients need, while also educating parents about health issues from lead exposure to obesity. This is the normal work of a pediatrician. But there's something different about the way she delivers such care.

"Our goal is to break down any barrier to care and one of the most common barriers to care is physical access to a clinic," says Dr. Olteanu. "Our program is a doctor's office on wheels. We are a bus, a big bus that functions as a regular pediatric clinic. And we are bringing primary care and pediatric care services directly into the community."

Dr. Olteanu is medical director for the New Orleans Children's Health Project. The primary delivery system she and the program's staff use to get their care into local communities is this 40-foot-long, bright blue bus - their mobile clinic.

The Children's Health Project is part of a national initiative originally started back in 1987 with help from the famous singer/songwriter Paul Simon. Today it deploys similar mobile medical clinics to areas short on permanent, fixed-site pediatric offices with the aim of giving families in these areas what's known as a medical home, or a reliable, trusted hub to address all of a child's medical needs, from routine check ups to mental health counseling. Case manager Carlos Naranjo explains that the New Orleans Children's Health Project is an expansion of that national model, which is run locally in partnership with the Tulane School of Medicine.

"In New Orleans it got started right after Katrina," says Naranjo. "There were three programs set up in the region, one in Baton Rouge, one in Gulfport, Miss. and this one in New Orleans right after Katrina. And at the beginning they were seeing basically everyone walking in, because there were hardly any doctors in the area. As the city started to come back, then we went back to our mission, which is to address children's needs."

Since it's based in a bus, the Children's Health Project can offer these services at different sites across the area on a regular weekly schedule. Patients call for appointments or sometimes just knock on the bus door seeking care. Inside the bus, they find private exam rooms and all the tools of a regular community clinic. They'll also find a staff fluent in Spanish, which is important for a patient base which is now about 70 percent Latino, a reflection of the area's post-Katrina demographics.

In all cases, Dr. Olteanu says the focus is managing children's health through prevention, early detection and alternatives to the emergency room for non-emergency issues, a common but costly course for many without other options.

"Using the emergency room for children is detrimental on several levels," she says. "The children are not getting their preventive care, they do not have a medical home where all their medical needs are addressed and it's also a huge financial burden on our entire health care system."

"Most children are health, but we have to make sure that we keep them healthy and we discover any potential problems really early," she says.

Find schedules and details about the Children's Health Project at its Web site or call 504-988-0545 (504-858-0155 en espanol).