Ramona Grolla never knows what her work day is going to look like.
“I could start the day treating a child for an ear infection and then move on to teaching an elderly patient about their diabetes or change someone’s dressing,” explains Grolla. “We don’t require clients to make appointments so the amount of patients we see differs greatly from day to day. You just never know.”

The new health bus.

Grolla is a full time nurse practitioner on the health bus, the Mobile Primary Health Centre. Grolla works with a paramedic as a unique pairing that delivers primary health care services to Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods.

Saskatoon Health Region partnered with MD Ambulance to pilot the health bus project in August 2008. MD Ambulance donated a used recreational vehicle (RV) which was then retrofitted into a mobile clinic. The pilot program received permanent funding from the Ministry of Health in February 2009.

“The whole purpose of the health bus is to improve access to health care services,” says Sheila Achilles, Director of Primary Health. “By working with private and public partners, by creating those partnerships we are putting the health care needs of our communities first. We come to them.”

Jodi Spence is very familiar with Saskatoon’s health bus. The 32-year old daycare worker and mother of four young children understands how quickly the need for medical advice and assistance can arise. “I really trust the staff on the health bus,” says Spence. “They are always calm, friendly, they don’t rush you like some clinics and are very thorough when dealing with a young child.”

The health bus served just less than 6,000 clients from April 2009 to March 2010. “We provide care to a diverse group of people, including some who may be transient or homeless or living at risk. Promoting healthy lifestyles and behaviours is an integral part of each patient visit,” says Grolla. “Promotion and education can range from talking to a mother about infant or child care, teaching diabetic management or talking to a drug addict about their addictions. Some clients come every week, some come once or twice a month but they always tell us that they feel safe coming to the bus.”

“Creating that trust and reliability with our clients is what makes this program work so well,” says Achilles. “For example, if we need to change a bus stop location we want to do
so based on client need and access, and without creating a lot of confusion. To accomplish this, we consult our clients and our frontline staff and select the location based on their recommendations.”

Reliability has occasionally been an issue, especially in the winter months says Grolla. “At -40 a 1993 RV isn’t so quick to start and it’s harder to keep the bus warm. During the summer it’s just as hard to keep it cool, as the air conditioning frequently conked out.”
However, the new health bus debuted in Saskatoon on December 19.

The new Crestline vehicle is much longer with room for two patient treatment areas instead of one. “The new bus is also wheelchair accessible which is something that we couldn’t offer on the old bus due to lack of space,” explains Achilles.

Funding for the new bus came courtesy of the Synergy 8 Community Builders who raised a total of $360,000 including PotashCorp’s matching sponsorship of $180,000. The Ministry of Health and Saskatoon Health Region contributed $100,000 towards the purchase of the new bus.
“These partners have done an incredible job in supporting this program and we are so grateful to them,” says Achilles. “It’s our hope that joint initiatives like these can set the stage for future partnerships.”

Grolla agrees. In fact, she would like to see additional focus on developing partnerships with more social agencies and community partners. “We need to provide more education and preventative health care and I think having additional partners in both the private and public sectors can help us achieve that,” she says. “We need to go beyond basic health care.”
As for the old bus, Achilles doesn’t know what the plans are for it yet. “We’re not sure how we are going to use it at this point but we are definitely going to keep it.”

Click here to take a virtual tour of the new health bus: http://www.youtube.com/user/SaskatoonHealthReg#p/u/4/YlngLKV5JPA