It was the middle of the school day when 13-year-old Kayla began experiencing an earache. The seventh-grader at East Norriton Middle School headed to the school nurse. Then came the usual decisions to make: Is she sick enough to call her parents, be sent home, or go straight to the doctor’s office? Or can she rest for a while and go back to class?
In Kayla’s case, her school nurse recognized a perfect opportunity to take advantage of a school telehealth program being piloted with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
Thanks to support provided by United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, CHOP created a school telehealth program in February 2018. In participating schools in the Norristown Area School District, nurses examine students as they always have. But in cases where the school nurse determines a greater level of care is needed, the program offers a fast, more convenient way for the child to be examined by a CHOP provider — without completely interrupting the school day.
“It was a Friday afternoon, and I got a call from the school nurse,” Kayla’s mother, Tina, recalls. The nurse asked Tina’s permission to consult with a CHOP provider via a virtual visit.
“I knew about the CHOP program because we had filled out a form to opt in,” says Tina. “I know the school nurse well, and I trust her — so I told her I didn’t need to be on the call.”
That consent form gives parents several options: The parent can listen in on the examination, allow the exam to proceed when they cannot be reached, or opt out of the program altogether.
With her mom’s OK, Kayla was quickly connected to a CHOP physician without leaving the school nurse’s office.
A virtual visit to the doctor’s office without leaving school
Each participating school is equipped with an iPad with “virtual visit” software, as well as the digital equipment needed to make a complete in-school virtual visit possible.
The nurse calls or sends a text prompting the provider to log into the secure app. Providers log on using a computer — anytime, anywhere (comparable to a FaceTime visit, only much more secure).
Providers can then perform heart exams, measure heart rates, listen to the lungs and abdomen, view high-resolution digital images of the ear, mouth, throat and skin, and get accurate temperatures — all through technology.
In Kayla’s case, the CHOP provider determined she had swimmer’s ear and needed antibiotic ear drops, and the prescription was sent electronically to the pharmacy Tina had designated.
Convenient, accessible care
“All I had to do on my way home from work was pick up the prescription,” Tina explains. “It was a big help. I was really busy at work — it would have been hard for me to leave. It was late on a Friday afternoon, so getting a doctor’s appointment would have been difficult. Maybe we would have been heading to an urgent care over the weekend. But this was perfect!”
The school telehealth program has benefits beyond parents’ convenience and peace of mind. For children without family physicians or transportation to get to a primary care provider, the program offers the potential to improve access to routine care. It also seeks to improve chronic disease management and increase the chance of detecting a health issue earlier, with the goal of ultimately improving outcomes and overall health.
It also empowers school nurses to meet more student health needs.
“School nurses are the only healthcare provider our schools, so the telehealth pilot with CHOP has been a great opportunity for us to work with other medical professionals to provide the best possible care for our students,” says Eileen McKeron, RN, MEd, CSN, the school nurse who cared for Kayla. “We’ve been able to interact with the doctor on call to determine the best treatment for the students’ symptoms.”
Tina couldn’t be more pleased with her family’s experience with the program. “Telehealth is the direction we’re going, right?” she says. “It’s the future. That makes me an early adopter!”