Tapping Tech to Fill Rural Health Care Gaps

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(Image courtesy of Elwood Community School Corp.) (Image courtesy of Elwood Community School Corp.)

A first-of-its-kind program designed to boost the quality and availability of health care in rural Indiana schools will launch next month. The Linton-based Indiana Rural Health Association will open a pilot, school-based telehealth clinic in Elwood Community Schools. The next step will be implementing the program in five more districts, eventually blanketing the state. Over time, Indiana Rural School Clinic Network Program Manager Jenni Hill says the model could even be applied outside school walls and brought into the community.

She says the need is great. "There are several different (telehealth) programs out there for the adults, but nothing for children so far and especially nothing coming to them at the school level." She says Indiana trails other states in this regard, with several states launching on-site telehealth clinics in schools years ago. She says the lessons and data learned from those programs gives her confidence that it will make a difference.

The program works like this: children who feel ill at school visit the school's health professional. If the determination is made that the student needs to see a doctor, a virtual visit can be set up on-site and parents are contacted to see if they wish to join in. Hill says the school's health aid will then serve as the doctor's "hands" during the visit, operating the various pieces of diagnostic equipment for the children. The readings will be collected, then analyzed by the doctor without the need to leave school grounds. "Now that school nurse has this extra support system of a provider that they can connect with virtually to ensure that the child can get diagnosed if it's beyond their scope of service." She says the program won't replace the job of a school nurse or health aid, but instead, provide the next level of care, if needed.

Elwood's telehealth clinic will launch September 6 and the network plans to roll out others at school systems in Parke, Vermillion and Southwest Jefferson counties, as well as Austin and Crothersville schools.

Hill says some of the programs primary goals include decreasing chronic disease rates, improving attendance, improving behavioral health indicators and decreasing emergency room visits for acute care throughout the state.

Indiana Rural Health Association Executive Director Don Kelso says "delivering high-quality healthcare to our rural school children represents a pressing need across Indiana. There are about 15 true school-based health clinics in Indiana, and this will be the first with telehealth capacity with physician engagement directly incorporated into school clinics. Indiana presently lags behind other states who allocate funding specifically for school-based health clinics. IRHA's goal is to change that, and we will take initial steps to achieve this through the implementation of IRSCN and the utilization of telehealth technology."

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