Students living in rural areas in Bledsoe and surrounding counties are getting free medical care services thanks to telehealth, through the Chattanooga-based Erlanger Health System.
Telehealth (also known as telemedicine) uses electronic information and telecommunication technologies to offer long-distance clinical health care. Telemedicine centers on populations that have barriers to health care, including rural communities, poverty-stricken regions, or homebound people. Telemedicine is sustained by grants, funds, and other donations from organizations, such as the Lyndhurst Foundation and Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Chattanooga.
According to the National Association of School Nurses website, telehealth can significantly reduce the outbreak of infectious diseases, help manage chronic health conditions, and improve school attendance among students. Besides, it can enhance the work productivity of teachers, support staff, and parents.
Erlanger finances this effort at no cost to the schools in the region schools. It uses students’ health insurance to cover the cost of virtual visits—if a student has a health cover. Hence, the grant funds only include virtual appointments of students who are not covered. Erlanger also helps such students and their families to enroll in TennCare.
In August 2019, the program was implemented in five schools after the Bledsoe County School Board’s vote. From August 2019, 75 children, as well as faculty and staff members, have accessed medical care through telehealth.
Symptoms that warrant telemedicine includes sore throat, fever, and congestion. When a student has these symptoms, the school calls their parents or guardians to ask if they should use the service or take the student to their regular provider. Notably, some conditions, such as head and physical injuries, cuts that need stitching, complicated infections, serious illness, and traumatic injuries, cannot be treated through the program.
Trained nurses in communication with Erlanger nurse practitioners conduct visits, which happen within 10 to 15 minutes. An Erlanger nurse practitioner watches through a webcam as the student’s parent joins in through the phone.
As a result, most students are treated faster than they used to be returning to school quicker. They do not have to miss school when the condition is non-contagious. Also, studies show that more than 50% of teachers treated through telehealth have been able to resume work immediately. As a result, this program has also helped schools save much money on substitute teachers.