Sunday, January 16, 2022
Home Health A medical facility on wheels bringing hope to Canberra's homeless

A medical facility on wheels bringing hope to Canberra’s homeless

Various people stand outside the PAT van in central Canberra
The ‘pathways to assistance’ van provides support to Canberra’s homeless and has just set up a new clinic at Veteran’s Park.(ABC News: Greg Nelso

A trip to the doctor is something many take for granted.

But for those living rough or in public housing, just figuring out how to get to a clinic can be a barrier.

In Canberra, a $250,000 mobile GP clinic took to the road in November last year, providing some of the Territory’s most vulnerable with access to free counselling and primary healthcare services.

And now, the medical lifeline is getting another permanent home in the city’s centre — which means people who need it will now be able to access free healthcare services, five days a week.

Man with grey hair wearing dark clothes smiles for the camera
David Bryce became a volunteer at PAT the van after using it for healthcare.(ABC News: Greg Nelson )

Despite only opening last year, the Pathways to Assistance and Treatment van — affectionately known as PAT —  sees about 25 patients per day.

One such patient is public housing resident David Bryce who, before he started visiting the van, hadn’t considered seeing a doctor for a health check.

“I went and just had a health check up, and found out about a few issues,” he said.

“I couldn’t believe they go there every [week].”

Following PAT’s success running clinics for public housing residents in Reid, Belconnen, Oaks Esate and Ainslie, a fifth permanent location — every Friday at Veterans Park in Civic — was announced yesterday.

“PAT is now providing primary health care five days a week, across five sites, to Canberrans who may otherwise be unable to access vital services,” Bronwyn Hendry, CEO at Directions Health Services said.

Three men stand at a table and barbecue and cook eggs and bacon in the Canberra city centre
David Bryce said his volunteer work at the van had helped to boost his self-esteem.(ABC News: Alana Seeais )

Mr Bryce now regularly attends and volunteers at the service, cooking bacon and egg rolls for people as they wait for their appointment.

“It’s been really good for my mental health and my self-esteem,” he said, adding that the van filled an important gap in medical access.

“A lot of people on the streets wouldn’t have access to healthcare without it,” he said.

Local GP Ben Harness runs the clinic one day a week and said many of his clients have complex needs.

“A lot of clients tend to struggle and haven’t always had good experiences dealing with traditional main stream health care service,” Dr Harness said.

Many clients struggle with addiction issues, and each van is assigned a GP, a nurse and a drug and alcohol counsellor.

Nurse Ali Loom said a lot of clients were also disconnected from family and their community, further adding to their problems.

“A lot of our clients have huge trauma background, with childhood trauma or ongoing adult trauma,” she said.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith smiles as she receives her COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said there were some obstacles to extending the vaccine rollout to the vans.(ABC News: Rosie King )

Ms Loom said that the number one question being asked at the clinic is when and how to get the coronavirus vaccine.

“It’s such a valid question because these are the people who won’t be able to access the COVID vaccines via the normal channels,” she said.

“There’s a lot of fear in those communities about their vulnerabilities to COVID, so we hope we can offer the vaccines pretty soon.”

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said she was considering a plan to make the AstraZeneca vaccine available for people who use the van.

However, Ms Stephen-Smith did not commit to a timeframe, and said that it was not just the vaccination that needed to be considered.

“It’s not just about putting a needle in someone’s arm, particularly for people who are vulnerable,” she said.

“It is about making sure that they know where they can go to if they do experience some of those mild symptoms after they’ve been vaccinated.”

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