N.C. doctor's portable medical centers not just for disaster response

Interest in the tractor-trailer mobile hospitals has expanded to less-developed countries where access to medical services is limited.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Aug. 29, 2011

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Making sidelines pay

Business Pitch

Doctors who branched out beyond running their practice tell why they did it, how they did it, and what you should know before you do it.
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Name: Tom Blackwell, MD

Specialty: Emergency medicine

Location: Charlotte, N.C.

Company: MED-1 Partners designs mobile hospitals that fit in 18-wheel, 53-foot-long tractor-trailers (link). They include a 13-bed emergency room, a pharmacy and a lab, as well as an operating room and an intensive care unit. A canopy attachment allows expansion for 250 more beds. An accompanying trailer provides supply storage and rest areas for medical staff.

Annual revenue: The figures are not available, but the company recently signed multimillion-dollar contracts for units to be sent to Zambia and Ecuador.

Why he started the business: Dr. Blackwell, who has long been interested in disaster response, began devising plans for a mobile hospital that could be set up in less than 20 minutes. He won a $2.7 million federal grant for its development as an alternative to the tent hospitals that frequently are set up during emergencies.

"I don't like tents," he said. "They smell like tents. They mold like tents."

The first unit, Carolinas MED-1, was deployed for six weeks in 2005 to Hancock County in Mississippi to deal with the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. The unit later was deployed for another six weeks in 2008 to Columbus, Ind., after severe flooding. It also has provided care during special events such as New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration.

But in between, the unit sat idle. Dr. Blackwell thought there had to be a better use for it. He discovered that interest in this type of facility was higher in less developed countries because it could bring health care to areas with limited access to medical services.

In December 2010, he left emergency medicine to devote himself to the business.

Why he stopped practicing: "It just got to be too much. It was a gamble, but here's an opportunity. Let's make it work. So far, it's been just wonderful."

Words of wisdom: "Look around at the state of health care delivery. Is it working? What do you need to truly have access to health care that is really patient-centric? Think about where health care needs to be delivered."

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