Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Telehealth clinics boost medical access for rural Indiana students

CNHI photo
Until recently, students in Hanover, Indiana's Southwestern Jefferson County Schools who needed to see a doctor had to leave class and make a nearly 30 minute drive to the nearest hospital.

In January, the rural school district, located along the Ohio River on the Indiana side of the Kentuckiana border, installed two new virtual clinics, Carson Gerber reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.  "Instead of getting in the car, students can now just walk down the hallway and see a licensed physician via video conference," Gerber writes.

The clinic is equipped with a laptop computer, digital cameras and medical equipment such as stethoscopes, otoscopes and dermascopes that connect to the computer. Medical providers can use the equipment to look at students’ ears, nose, throat and skin remotely through the laptop in order to check for common school illness such as the flu, lice, rashes or strep throat, Gerber explains. "If a student needs medication, the physician can call in a prescription to the local pharmacy, and parents can pick it up the same day."

Superintendent Trevor Jones says that for a rural school district like his where access to medical care is limited, the new in-house clinic has been a game changer. "The whole goal is to help those kids who really don’t have access to a physician to be able to provide that care right here at school," Jones told Gerber.

The district’s virtual clinic is part of a new telehealth initiative by the Indiana Rural Health Association, a nonprofit organization developed in 1997 that aims to improve the health of rural residents. The group launched the school-based telemedicine program in October after receiving federal grant funding through the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, Gerber explains. It also became the first initiative of its kind in the state.

Hayley Ready, the nonprofit’s rural community outreach coordinator, told Gerber that any rural school district where at least half the students qualify for free or reduced lunches can apply to receive a telehealth clinic at no cost to the district. That cost can add up to more than $20,000 to purchase and install the equipment. Without the grant money, it’s improbable that rural, low-income school districts could afford to operate a virtual clinic on their own. "Telehealth is great, but the initial cost of the equipment is too high for most schools to buy," Ready told Gerber. "It’s something schools definitely would not be able to budget on their own."

She said the Rural Health Association plans to launch clinics at eight other school districts this year and hopes to have telehealth equipment in up to 25 schools by 2020. "The end goal for installing school-based telehealth clinics is to boost medical access for students who might have a hard time seeing a physician at a brick-and-mortar hospital," Gerber writes. "That’s an issue for families in which parents can’t get off work to take their child to a doctor, or don’t have a vehicle to drive there."

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