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When the coronavirus epidemic brought Remote Area Medical (RAM) operations to a screeching halt, the organization quickly retooled to meet the new challenge.
RAM is best known for providing free healthcare services via large pop-up medical clinics that provide medical, dental, and vision services to people who can’t otherwise afford care. The organization’s most recent report says they reached more than 45,000 patients in one year with the help of nearly 18,000 volunteers.
“We do about 65 plus clinics a year domestically…we were already booked for 2020 and halfway booked for 2021,” Jeff Eastman, RAM’s CEO, told the Daily Yonder during an interview. “A lot of [places RAM serves] are specifically rural communities in Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas, all around the U.S. However, with social distancing in the rules from the CDC, we had to pull the plug on those.”
Eastman and his organization started looking for ways to continue their mission. The answer came to them along with an inquiry from one of the country’s largest retailers, looking for volunteers to help with coronavirus testing. The company was partnering with yet another enterprise, a testing lab, and building drive-through testing sites.
The retailer needed help finding necessary people for the operation. “That’s exactly where our competency comes in,” Eastman said. “For example, last year, we recruited over 20,000 volunteers to deliver services for our clinics.”
While medical professionals would be administering tests and handling samples, there was a great need for volunteers to run nonmedical stations like check-in and registration that precede the test.
Through its network, RAM managed to organize over 2,000 volunteers across 13 states: Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Kentucky, Florida, New York, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, and Illinois. These volunteers manage 20 drive-through test sites that serve general populations in many rural communities. They have helped provide over 18,000 tests so far.
Eastman noted that none of the hundreds of volunteer associations RAM contacted hesitated to help. The commitment is usually between four to six weeks, seven days a week per testing site. People typically come for one or two days and then rotate, he said.
“We’ve called hundreds and hundreds of volunteer associations,” Eastman said. “And nobody has said no…We’re all in this together. No matter where you are on the social-economic scale. I mean, everybody’s in this no matter where you are in the world, Tennessee, New York, Manhattan…And people have stepped up.”
RAM helps with grassroots efforts to enlist people for the sites but doesn’t have the capacity and resources to keep them on-site, fed, and housed. That’s why the focus is on recruiting from among the local communities.
The organization also has a fleet of 18-wheelers, box trucks, and personal vehicles that normally transport mobile clinics. In partnership with an East Tennessee company that used to make automotive parts but switched to face shield production, RAM is now using its fleet to deliver shields to hospitals.
The manufacturer is an accomplished producer but less experienced with transportation Eastman said.
“So they reached out to ask if we could help with distribution…and we deliver all around the state of Tennessee, I think 41,000 face shields to local hospitals…all in Tennessee, Kentucky and beyond.”
Meanwhile, RAM is still looking at its core mission of providing basic healthcare services to those without insurance. For some time now the organization wanted to find a way to serve people between their pop-up clinics. Telemedicine looked like a promising solution.
“We kicked it around for a while but we haven’t had the impetus or a kick in the butt, you know, because we’ve always got something else, OK?” Eastman noted.
But last Friday the organization hosted a beta test internally. The system they are testing right now would involve free of charge e-consultations, including some dental advice, with availability beyond just the weekends, which used to be reserved for the pop-up clinics.
The idea to implement telehealth technologies was not a new one, but the circumstances helped force RAM’s hand. “Finally it’s not just really cool. It’s really cool and it’s needed,” said Eastman.