Cassville schools being considered for telemedicine grant

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

New technology would bring doctor to students, improve health, attendance

The Cassville school district and five other nearby districts may soon be getting a valuable service come September, when CoxHealth, which currently provides telemedicine services for Cassville school employees, may extend the same services to elementary students.

It's all contingent on a three-year, $219,000 grant the hospital system applied for in June through the Missouri Foundation for Health.

Since January, district employees have been utilizing DirectConnect services, which includes telemedicine technology to treat a variety of common illnesses and medical issues on site, so teachers don't have to leave their classrooms to address a medical concern, be it allergies, a cold, ear ache, or any other typical malady.

"If you have a UTI, sinus infection, or ear pain, and you don't want to leave or can't take off work, you can get it looked at there, on your phone," said Bridgette O'Hara, DirectConnect product manager for Cox. "It also eliminates wait time at doctors' offices and the expense of urgent care or emergency room visits."

"What the school board and I intended to do with this service is provide another embedded benefit to our employees, and at no cost," said Richard Asbill, superintendent for the district. "It makes it a powerful part of our benefits structure. Employees who have easy access to health care are more responsive to employment needs. In school business, our employees are exposed to a variety of germs and contagious items. So, by providing a DirectConnect access option to our employees, they are better able to care for themselves or their own family members."

The program has been so successful for employees that Cox hopes, with the help of the grant, to bring the same telemedicine services to students, to improve health, and ultimately, attendance and academic success.

"Our whole focus is on students who have a lower attendance so if they don't meet the 90th percentile, or if they have chronic ailments, the idea is we will be able to improve health or attendance for those students," O'Hara said. "Asbill was really excited about [offering] the program to students."

"Our students are our priority," Asbill said. "Any time we can focus good quality efforts on services that benefit our students, we need to take a proactive approach. The initial benefits are hard to clarify. Access and wellness are the first. The intended benefit is wellness and students who come to school healthy and ready to learn."

In a nutshell, what the program does is give students increased access to health care and expert providers through telemedicine, an emerging new technology that uses video to allow provider and patient to connect remotely.

Parents can also be present during a doctor's visit by connecting on their phone. It is akin to Skype or FaceTime.

"It doesn't have to be a smart phone," O'Hara said. "Anything with internet service and a camera will work. Having a parent present is extremely important to us so they can carry out that care plan, because if we say, you need to take this antibiotic for so many days, is the student really going to be able to articulate that to his parents?

"We currently have a Care Mobile staffed by nurse practitioners. They travel to many schools across southwest Missouri, primarily doing sports physicals, immunizations, and some treatments. What we're doing is applying for a grant to integrate telemedia into that service. The grant will allow us to pilot with six schools in the area. Say our Care Mobile is in Monett, but we have a sick kid in Reeds Spring, they can connect back there with telemedicine."

The barrier, O'Hara said, has always been that Care Mobile, originally funded by the Children's Miracle Network, can't be in several schools at once.

"You just don't know which kid is going to be sick at what school, so bringing that telemedia piece allows them to have access to all the schools," O'Hara said. "So, sometimes, the Care Mobile will be there in person, but when they're not, they can be there through telemedicine."

Nurses can simply link in with a pool of providers to promptly get an opinion and diagnosis.

"The nurse can say, 'We're not sure if it's pink eye or just allergies, so let's get you on screen with a provider,' and the provider can give their opinion and prescribe what's needed," O'Hara said. "Then, if they need to be home, they can, or they can get a letter saying it's just allergies, and the student can return to school."

O'Hara said in talking to some of these schools, some students have missed more than half the year due to sickness.

"This services allows them to stay in school," she said. "We're working with CoxHealth Foundation to support it. So, we'll be dealing with a lot of resources to make the program successful. It's kind of repurposing the Care Mobile service, I think to make it more of what it is designed to do to -- help sick kids. Healthy kids learn better, so if we can keep them healthy, attendance will improve."

The grant funds would enable telemedicine services to be offered to six elementary schools: Cassville, Monett, Mountain Grove, Ozark, Reeds Spring and Forsyth.

"Our goal is to expand it past elementary and other schools, and to address more acute illnesses, like diabetes, behavioral health and asthma," O'Hara said. "Those are the big ones that keep them out of classes. There's a need for that. Obviously, being a health care system, we have those services available throughout our system."

The hospital expects to hear about the status of their grant application in September.

"We've had schools asking us for a very long time to bring in some kind of telemedicine services, and we do it currently for our staff," O'Hara said. "We're excited about it, but if the grant doesn't transpire, we're still going to work on making this a reality, one way or another. I want it for my kids, too."

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