New Delhi: Out-of-pocket health expenses drove 55 million Indians, more than the population of South Korea, Spain or Kenya, into poverty in 2011-2012, and of these, 38 million (69 per cent) were impoverished by expenditure on medicines alone, states the study carried out by Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and published in the British Medical Journal in 2018. Due to lack of funds, poor people often avoid necessary healthcare and even a preventable illness takes the shape of life-threatening disease. To address the issue, in 2006 NGO Smile Foundation introduced ‘Smile on Wheels’, a project to meet the primary healthcare needs of urban underprivileged communities.
‘Smile on Wheels’ is a custom-tailored mobile medical unit van, armed with modern equipment and a doctor and qualified nursing attendant on board, made available to cater to the primary health needs of beneficiaries in inaccessible areas. The ‘Smile on Wheels’ van provides free of cost door step consultation, medical tests like blood sugar and blood pressure, measuring weight and height and free medicines to underprivileged.
Giving out details of the initiative to NDTV, Santanu Mishra, co-founder and trustee, Smile Foundation, says,
While free medical services is the core function of these vans but the secondary function also involves cultivating health seeking behavior in the community, awareness on health and sanitation, and consciousness on right eating and nutrition, particularly among pregnant women and infants.
The mobile medical unit vans contribute towards bridging the access and equity gap in our healthcare system. Further talking about the aim of smile on wheels initiative, Mr Mishra says,
This free of cost door step service is our effort to reduce out of pocket expenses for the underserved communities, thereby helping them allocate their resources to other critical needs like food and education.
How Smile On Wheels Provide Free Healthcare
One mobile medical unit caters to the needs of the residents of 10-12 locations with bimonthly visits at each identified location. Before a medical van is scheduled to address the medical needs of slum dwellers, a team of volunteers does the job of community mobilisation. A group of volunteers go door-to-door, informing slum dwellers about medical van’s upcoming visit and how they can avail facilities.
Talking about the process for availing free medical facilities provided by smile on wheels, Mr Mishra says,
As and when our smile on wheels (SOW) reaches its destination, individual willing to get free of cost medical consultancy needs to register himself/herself and wait for his/her turn. The reason we have made registration mandatory is to have the medical history of each and every patient at one place. This information comes handy when a person shifts from one place to another or when a doctor changes. For instance, a migrant labour living in Delhi moves to a colony in Kolkata and wishes to utilise the medical facilities provided by SOW in his current location. In that case, a doctor in Kolkata can simply know about his medical history from our data base and provide necessary treatment.
Smile On Wheels Changing Lakhs Of Lives
At the launch of NDTV Dettol Banega Swasth India on Monday (August 19) with campaign ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, NDTV spoke to a couple of 6000 beneficiaries from Basanti Colony in Kolkata. Most of the residents of Basanti Colony are daily wage earners and for them sometimes it is a choice between going to the hospital for medical care and earning their daily bread. Talking about how mobile van is better than going to a hospital, one of the beneficiaries said,
The nearest hospital is far away and going there and standing in a queue whole day means the loss of a livelihood whereas mobile van addresses our needs quickly.
Smile on Wheels initiative that was first launched in 2006 became fully operational in 2011. Today, Smile Foundation runs 42 fully functional medical vans across 22 states in India, of which three mobile medical units are operational in Kolkata. Over the years, SOW has benefitted 3.4 lakh individuals and around 70 per cent of the beneficiaries are women and children. In Kolkata alone, nearly 1.25 lakh people have been benefitted in the last four years. Smile Foundation is aiming to add at least 40 more medical units in the next two years.