Norwegian American Hospital serves some of Chicago's neediest ZIP codes. The average per capita income in its core service neighborhood is $13,391, while the unemployment rate stands at 12 percent.

Those numbers translate into health problems, such as childhood asthma, elevated blood lead levels and high rates of childhood obesity and teen pregnancy. Because they lack regular medical care, many children in the community can’t meet the vaccine requirements for public school registration.

“We are a community hospital in a disadvantaged community, where many of our residents are minorities as well as immigrants,” says Jose R. Sanchez, president and CEO of Norwegian American, one of this year’s recipients of the American Hospital Association NOVA Award. “One of our critical concerns is to keep children healthy in our community.”

Watch: 2017 NOVA Award: Norwegian American Hospital

In an effort to meet that concern, Norwegian American launched its Care-A-Van program in 2008, featuring a fully-equipped mobile medical clinic in a van that provides preventive medical care to low-income children at school in Chicago's disadvantaged West Side communities. Nova-St.-norwegian-care

Care-A-Van provides preventive care such as physicals, immunizations, and screenings for lead, hemoglobin, hearing and vision.

“We have a team of professionals, clinicians from the hospital, that is fully dedicated to the success of this program,” Sanchez says. “We have nurses, community workers, drivers.”

The program is structured to work in partnership with the Chicago Public Schools system. Schools must obtain signed parental consent forms before scheduling a van visit, where 25 or more children may be seen in a single day. If the van completes a school visit ahead of schedule, it can return to a school that has additional needs and see the remaining, otherwise unserved students.

Care-A-Van services include sports physicals for high-school athletic teams, youth sports leagues and Special Olympics programs.

Outside of school hours, the van serves day care centers, community organizations and health fairs to reach younger children and others who are unable to access services through schools.

About two years ago, the program added a van for dental care.

Demand for the Care-A-Van program is high. The van is booked months in advance and has a waiting list in case of a cancellation.

The program relies on philanthropy, primarily from the Children’s Care Foundation, but Norwegian American has been diversifying Care-A-Van’s funding in recent years. Recent awards and grant support have come from the Northern Trust Co. Charitable Trust, the Col. Stanley McNeil Foundation and the Illinois Association of Free and Charitable Clinics.

In addition to partnering with Chicago Public Schools, Norwegian American collaborates in the Care-A-Van program with public health agencies, Korean American Community Services, the Night Ministry, Casa Central and New Life Covenant Church.

Care-A-Van has been effective at increasing access to care. It serves more than 3,000 children a year at 80 schools. Between fiscal year 2013 and fiscal year 2015, the program doubled the number of patients seen and tripled the number of services provided while maintaining the same operating budget in 2016.

Norwegian American says hospitals wishing to replicate its mobile pediatric services should use a clinical/manager staffing model within a defined geographic area, integrate the program with hospital infrastructure, and proactively coordinate referrals, which helps families establish a medical home for ongoing care.

Sanchez recommends that hospitals serving inner-city communities create similar programs. “It's a comprehensive approach to deliver care to children in the inner city who otherwise would not have access to immunizations or dental care,” he says.

Each year, the American Hospital Association honors up to five programs led by AHA member hospitals as “bright stars of the health care field” with the AHA NOVA Award. Winners are recognized for improving community health by looking beyond patients’ physical ailments, rooting out the economic and social barriers to care and collaborating with other community stakeholders. The AHA NOVA Award is directed and staffed by the AHA's Office of the Secretary. Visit www.aha.org/nova for more information.