Telehealth in schools works by first having the student in need of medical care visit the school nurse. The nurse then uses online video and audio technology and digital tools to connect to an offsite physician. An article in Parents.com provides an example of how this works. A student complaining of a sore throat comes into the nurse’s office. Since the child’s parents have previously consented to the school’s telehealth program, the nurse calls in a telemedicine tech, who swabs the student’s throat and submits a culture for a rapid strep test. When the results come back positive a few minutes later, the nurse videoconferences in an offsite physician. The physician appears on a screen and asks the nurse to use special electronic medical tools to examine the student’s ears, throat, heart, and lungs. These tools transmit the necessary images and sounds so that the physician can see and hear them, as if the physician were there in-person. The physician is then able to confirm the strep throat diagnosis and phones in a prescription to a local pharmacy. The nurse then calls the parent to come pick up the child from school, and sends the record of the visit to the student’s primary care physician. In schools that do not have regular nurses, trained staff members take on the job of using technology and specialized tools to connect the student with an offsite nurse or physician.
A major advantage of using telehealth in schools is the reduced time students miss class due to health issues, something that has a large impact on academic success. Students are able to see a doctor quickly and do not need to be pulled out school by their parents for a doctor’s visit. A student will only miss a small amount of class time if the offsite physician determines that the student is healthy, does not have a contagious disease, or has a condition for which there is an immediate treatment. Telehealth in schools also helps students with chronic medical conditions manage their conditions, and miss less class. School telehealth programs offering dental and vision screenings also yield positive results in student attendance, as dental problems are a common cause of missed class and students with vision problems struggle completing their schoolwork.
Telehealth in schools also saves parents time. Parents are able to come pick up their sick children from school already knowing the diagnosis and treatment plan. Accordingly, parents not have to take time off of work to arrange a doctor’s visit, wait in doctor’s office with a potentially sick child, or visit the emergency room unnecessarily. School absenteeism due to doctors’ visits or mismanaged chronic illness, lack of access to healthcare affecting student achievement, and a decline in the number of school nurses: these are all problems that telehealth in schools aims to address. Telehealth – the use of technology to connect patients with medical care – is becoming more popular in schools.
Telehealth programs also help minimize barriers to and alleviate disparities in access to medical care. Transportation can be a barrier to medical care, especially for students with disabilities or those who live in rural areas. Having medical care available in schools, where students already spend a significant part of their time day, minimizes these concerns. Telehealth in schools also reduces barriers caused by economic disadvantage. A telehealth school program in Indiana states that no student will be denied coverage due to ability to pay, and a county government in Maryland has partnered with a local hospital to share the costs of making coverage available to all students in their school telehealth program.
Schools are also using telehealth to help diagnosis and manage mental and behavioral health issues to fulfill a critically unmet need. Telehealth makes setting up appointments with specialists, often a difficult task due to limited number of specialists, more manageable. It also allows teachers to be a part of the process and to ask questions that will allow the teacher to best address the student’s needs in the classroom.
The benefits of telehealth in schools are significant not only for students, but also for parents caring for sick children. While telehealth in schools must find solutions to issues such as a lack of sustainable funding or unreliable broadband internet, these concerns are minimal compared to the widespread solutions telehealth in schools provides to our communities.
Erica Spilde is a December 2017 J.D. candidate at the DePaul University College of Law. Erica is the Symposium Editor for the DePaul Law Review and a Jaharis Health Law Institute Fellow.