Imagine if your child’s school nurse had the resources of a fully staffed hospital emergency room at their disposal. Every cut, sting, break, fever, asthma attack, and upset stomach could be assessed and diagnosed within minutes. There would be no more vague requests for you to come and take your sick child to a doctor, no need to panic about what could be wrong as you disrupt your day to go pick them up.
It is possible with video conferencing. More accurately, it is possible with telemedicine, which is the use of video conferencing to make medical services available online. And it doesn’t take any great technological revolution for telemedicine in schools to be available today. Most of our schools are equipped with internet connections and webcams capable of making the necessary connection, and many hospitals, medical specialists, and even family doctors are already using telemedicine.
In fact, it may not be long before virtual medicine like this becomes a normal part of school life, just like social studies and lunchboxes.
Nursing by Video Conference
This change is already happening in Pender County, North Carolina. For the past six years, three schools in the district have been linked with remote medical providers by video conference under a program operated by the non-profit Pender Alliance for Teen Health, or PATH. The system provides students with near-instant access to medical aid during school hours and has been extended to include parents and staff members. The service is open to students regardless of whether they have private insurance, and it can accommodate both emergency and scheduled visits. The service is more than just a visual experience, too. The schools each have access to handheld medical equipment that allows healthcare professionals to remotely examine a patient’s heart, lungs, ear canal, temperature, and more.
With the help of the school nurse or a trained member of staff, a student can undergo a complete medical examination without ever having to leave the school grounds. It provides a quicker diagnosis in the case of an accident or sudden illness, and scheduled visits mean parents don’t have to take time out from work so that their children can receive regular, routine attention.
What’s more, Pender is just one example of the growing use of telemedicine in U.S. schools.
Telemedicine in Schools Is Growing
A similar program, called Health-e-Access, has been operating in Rochester, New York, since 2001. Designed by the University of Rochester Medical Center, the program is now offered in all 37 of the city’s elementary schools.
Elsewhere, the Children’s Health System in Dallas has conducted around 4,000 virtual doctor visits across 97 Texas schools over the past five years.
Nationwide, 18 states have authorized Medicaid reimbursement for school telemedicine use, and 28 states require private insurers to cover telemedicine visits the same way they do traditional in-room consultations.
In some cases, the kind of treatments offered have moved well beyond basic care for playground accidents or routine check-ups. VC Daily has previously reported on the use of telemedicine to screen for symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), color blindness, speech disorders, and hearing problems. There are also trials underway among a group of prestigious Texas universities to provide mental health support to students via online therapy sessions.
These initiatives aren’t designed like smartphone apps to cash in on the trend for all things digital. Rather, they can have a profound impact on the health of students.
Why We Need Telemedicine in Schools
It says something about our society that 94% of public school districts have a high-speed broadband internet connection but only about 40% of schools have a full-time nurse. It doesn’t take a great feat of insight to see how video conferencing and telemedicine fit into that equation.
Telemedicine removes the delays and dangers associated with having to physically transport a student for the sake of diagnosis.
As the Pender case proves, you don’t need a medical expert in-house if you have access to the right telemedicine equipment. Staff members could be given the same sort of training in how to use digital equipment as they are given so they can understand the basics of first aid. In some respects, it’s the same process. In each case, the teacher applies immediate care until professional help arrives. In the case of telemedicine, they’d be acting under the instant supervision of that professional, operating the equipment to provide a first-hand assessment of what is happening.
Video conferencing saves time, money, and travel, and when it comes to healthcare those are key considerations. Telemedicine provides an instant link to emergency care; it offers that service at the cost of a webcam and an internet connection, and it removes the delays and dangers associated with having to physically transport a student for the sake of diagnosis.
The system is too efficient, and the momentum behind it too great, for telemedicine to remain a rarity in our schools.