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Save the school nurse: Making schools a part of your healthcare network

Dr. Alan Pitt, Chief Medical Officer, Avizia and attending physician and Professor of Neuroradiology at the Barrow Neurological Institute

Most healthcare services are now delivered beyond the walls of a hospital or clinic.

As a result, many involved in the delivery of care are thinking ‘outside of the box.’ Whether through telehealth virtual visits or retail drug store clinics, we are beginning to reimagine how and where healthcare is delivered.

School-based health clinics are well positioned to deliver high quality care and address the gaps that exist nationwide in pediatric care. The Brookings Institute reported that school-based health centers currently serve more than two million children in the U.S. each year. But while a school nurse can provide for basic medical needs, they are typically understaffed and unable to meet the needs of every student.

Today, more than 6 million kids in the U.S.  miss 15 or more days of school in one year for health related issues.  These absences have a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn and retain knowledge.  And with many school systems adopting attendance-based funding mechanisms, there are financial incentives to keep kids healthy and in school. 

By using telehealth to connect school nurses with more advanced providers, many additional healthcare and education needs could be met without disrupting the day for students, parents and educators.

Benefits of school-based health centers

Research shows that communities who have school-based telehealth centers are better able to address student health needs. In fact, when the Global Partnership for Telehealth (GPT) extended its telemedicine services to schools they saw student emergency room visits decrease by 27 percent, and school health centers provide more than 40 virtual visits each month. By incorporating telehealth into their school-based programs these health centers were also able to offer a wider range of specialty care and address a variety of unmet health needs.

Telehealth also holds a great deal of promise for many students who are in need of behavioral health services. According to the Brookings Institute, one in five children exhibit signs of emotional or behavioral problems, but 80 percent do not receive proper evaluation and treatment. To address this, schools can implement telepsychiatry, which provides early detection and treatment and positions them as a safe place to receive mental health services. This anytime, anywhere access to care can help students get the treatment they need before a mental health issue escalates.

Outside of numerous student benefits, access to telehealth services through school-based health centers can greatly benefit school staff and local residents. These centers give staff convenient access to a doctor when they’re feeling ill, which saves them from having to leave the school or take a sick day. And in rural areas where many community members find it difficult to get to a doctor or specialist, access to telehealth services at school-based clinics has been shown to reduce ER visits and improve overall community health.

Opportunities for growth in school-based health centers

Although most would agree that school-based telehealth centers are a valuable tool for delivering care in rural or low income areas, implementation is often slowed by funding challenges.  Education budgets continue to shrink and many school districts don’t have the resources to support these centers.

Historically, a state’s department of education and department of health have been two separate agencies. To combat this, states need to begin thinking outside of traditional siloes and focus on cross agency collaboration. The return on investment for school-based telehealth centers will benefit both departments.

Districts who are interested in exploring the potential benefits of telehealth should consider pilot programs like the one GPT implemented in 2009. This program and approach gave GPT and participating schools the opportunity to study the impact of telemedicine in schools before committing a larger budget to the initiative – something many districts may find appealing.

 As we begin the new school year is time to get serious about our children’s health needs and look for innovative ways to address them. School-based telehealth centers can help set students, teachers and local communities up for a successful and healthy year.