TEHACHAPI -- A Kmart parking lot isn't where you'd expect to see a doctor's office set up shop, but 10 days a month that's what you'll find behind the retailer's Tehachapi location.
Kaiser Permanente's mobile clinic, a semi-truck outfitted with two exam rooms, a lift and a reception area, rolls into town Mondays, Fridays and two Saturdays a month to provide primary care to the health care provider's mountain members.
When the clinic operators aren't in Tehachapi, they might be seeing patients in Delano or Taft or attending a health fair.
Kaiser launched the clinic in March to reach members in outlying areas of Kern County. Twenty-five percent of Kaiser's Kern membership lives outside metro Bakersfield, said Dr. Paul Fuller, assistant area medical director for Kaiser Permanente Kern County.
Kaiser administrators and the leader of a mobile health clinic association said such clinics provide care that keeps people healthy and diagnoses problems earlier.
"They're mobile. They're flexible. They can go where the need is," said Darien DeLorenzo, CEO and executive director of the Mobile Health Clinics Association.
In October alone, the clinic logged 1,121 encounters with members, including physician visits, nurse clinics, lab draws and shots and flu vaccines, Kaiser says.
In Tehachapi -- where the clinic has received an especially warm reception, according to Kaiser administrators -- the clinic primarily sees older patients.
"For a lot of these people, it's hard to take the drive down to Bakersfield and a lot of them would not (before the clinic). They would avoid it," said Dr. Fehma Tufail, who staffs the clinic every other Monday.
Standing outside the clinic on a sunny Monday morning, Kaiser member Bob Lefler, 65, said he was tickled to learn he could get a test to monitor his blood thinning medication done in Tehachapi.
"I said, 'Yippee skippy,' because obviously the alternative is to drive down the mountain," the retired high school teacher said.
Mobile medicine isn't new to Kern County or the country. The Christian group Jesus Shack runs a mobile health clinic and San Joaquin Community Hospital administers a mobile immunization clinic.
DeLorenzo said mobile health care has been around for at least 30 years. Nationwide, an estimated 2,000 mobile clinics provide everything from preventative care to dental care, DeLorenzo said.
"Every day I get an email or a phone call from one or two organizations that are looking to start a mobile clinic," she said.
Kaiser has also dabbled in mobile health care before, including a Hawaiian mobile clinic equipped to perform mammograms. But the Kern clinic is the company's largest, Fuller said.
"I'm very glad to see it being used. It's doing much more than I anticipated," he said. "I'm just eager to build the second, the third and the fourth one and keep rolling them out."
Fuller said the mobile clinic project has been in the works for five years. The mobile clinic cost close to but less than $1 million, said Leslie Golich, public affairs director for Kaiser Permanente Kern County.
Golich said the price tag is cost-effective considering it would cost millions of dollars to build brick-and-mortar facilities in the communities the mobile clinic serves, something Kaiser doesn't have any plans on the books to do.
On the same day Lefler visited the clinic, the waiting room was packed with eight people. The semi's driver doubled as the receptionist, checking people in for appointments and operating the lift to help a woman descend from the clinic without taking the stairs.
Retired bookkeeper Linda Haas, 65, said she's thrilled that the clinic's availability cut down on her need to make the roughly 100-mile round trip to Bakersfield from Stallion Springs for medical care. Haas was also impressed by the quality of care at the clinic.
"I didn't think the service would be that good because there's so many people up here that need it and I figured they would be so over-booked that it would be a mad house," Haas said.
But Haas said that in fact, she hasn't had to wait more than 10 minutes for an appointment, which is less than what she would normally wait if she went to Bakersfield, and the clinic's doctors have helped her sort out her medication.
That day, Haas had visited the clinic to be interviewed but ended up seeing Tufail for a viral infection that was causing her a tight painful chest cough. Haas said the only thing she would change about the clinic would be to have it in town more.
"I would love for them to be here more often and I think that it would be good for the community for them to be here more," she said.