Connecting underserved youth to high-quality health care is no small feat. But the expansion of telehealth services in North Carolina and South Carolina schools is revolutionizing a system historically wrought with challenges and barriers.
“When it comes to access to medical care, some kids really need support,” said Dr. Jimmy McElligott, executive medical director for the Center for Telehealth at the Medical University of South Carolina. “This is a way to do something about it.”
With support from the Endowment, McElligott’s works in collaboration with other programs to expand school-based telehealth services, especially in rural S.C. areas such as Bamberg and Williamsburg counties. “Our growth focus has been to cover as high a percentage of high-needs schools as possible. Right now we’re in about 100, and when combined with statewide partners, this provides coverage in about two-thirds of all high-needs districts statewide.”
McElligott explained that beyond growing up in households with limited financial means, these students have other distinct needs, like the academic and social disruptions experienced as a result of leaving school for medical care.
The Endowment also supports school-based telehealth services in North Carolina. Dr. John Jenkins leads digital health education and special projects at Greensboro-based Cone Health. He said that in the Guilford County school district, absenteeism adversely impacted academic performance, especially in poorer schools. A quarter of all students were considered chronically absent, often leaving school for minor medical issues.
Additionally, Jenkins observed that most students weren’t heading to their pediatrician. “So many children have no medical home. They end up at emergency rooms which are costly and don’t provide continuity care,” he said. “This is burdensome to parents who are hourly employees earning low wages and facing barriers like childcare and transportation.”
The kids we see need this safety net. They are the ones falling through the cracks. Seeing more kids and expanding their care is our priority.DR. JIMMY McELLIGOTT | Executive Medical Director, The Center for Telehealth at the Medical University of South Carolina
Additionally, Jenkins observed that most students weren’t going to their pediatrician. “So many children have no medical home. They end up at emergency rooms which are costly and don’t provide continuity care,” he said. “This is burdensome to parents who are hourly employees earning low wages and facing barriers like childcare and transportation.”
Telehealth clinics solve this problem. Using high-tech measurement equipment and cameras, school nurses conduct examinations at school while remote pediatricians observe students and evaluate the data in real-time. These virtual visits connect physicians, nurses and students without disrupting the school day.
“The secret to our success is great school engagement, a connected school community, a strong school nurse and the fact that we aren’t simply an urgent care clinic in a school setting,” McElligott explained. “It’s about each individual kid and their distinct needs. And we have strong data that it works.”
McElligott points to hospital data from Williamsburg County that demonstrated a measurable change in the number of young people who visited the emergency room for asthma-related purposes after school-based telehealth clinics were launched. He adds that there will be an intensifying focus on expanding mental health services for youth through the telehealth platform in the near future.