Cutting-edge. Innovative. Transformative. TELEMEDICINE

story by Kelly Harley    photos by Tonya Perry

Cutting-edge. Innovative. Transformative. These words can be used to describe the Effingham Health TELEMED program. After its first year in operation at two local schools, the program is expanding and offering students access to health care like never before.

TELEMED in Action
In 2017, Effingham Health System (EHS) launched the TELEMED program in two Effingham County schools, Springfield Elementary and Guyton Elementary. The collaborative effort between EHS, Georgia Partnership for Telehealth and the Effingham County Board of Education has been met with plenty of praise. “Our primary focus is to provide quality, accessible health care to the students and staff in the Effingham County school system,” says Karen Warnell, health services coordinator for Effingham County schools. “We want to have a positive impact on the children’s health, school attendance and academic performance.”
This year, the program is expanding to Sandhill Elementary and Rincon Elementary. Schools are selected by which locations can serve the most children. The goal is to add schools each semester, until all the schools have access to the program. “We looked at the data and carefully chose the schools to implement the program,” says Joe Tallent, community and operations coordinator for EHS. “We decided to start with elementary schools first, and one main benefit of starting the program in lower grades is that the children and parents will already be familiar with how the program works.” Tallent says it is a plus that this encourages parents to feel more involved with the kids’ school life at a young age. During the 2017-2018 school year, there were 34 telemedicine visits. A typical visit is anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

How Does TELEMED Work?
One of the main goals of the program is to get children the care they need. Another goal is to keep them (and faculty) in the classroom as much as possible. So, instead of the children and staff needing to leave school to visit a doctor, they simply make a trip to the school nurse’s office. There, the nurse determines if a telemedicine appointment is necessary and if it is, he or she starts the virtual doctor’s appointment.
EHS doctors and physician assistants then “meet” with patients. Today’s telemedicine visit includes a bluetooth stethoscope, digital cameras, monitors and a digital scope. The physician can see a high-definition picture of the patient and communicates via live cameras and a computer. “We test a lot for strep throat and the flu. We also treat a lot of ear infections,” says Warnell. “If a patient is diagnosed, medications are prescribed and called into the pharmacy.” This means the medication will be ready when the parent goes to pick it up.
Along with increased access to primary health care, decreased emergency room visits, and less time out of the classroom, telemedicine visits save money. “The visits benefit Medicaid, PeachCare for Kids® and private insurers. Parents don’t have to miss as much work and the schools don’t need to hire substitute teachers,” says Warnell. Another benefit is that children receive immediate medical attention. “When we didn’t have telemedicine, the parents would take the child home and they didn’t always go right to the doctor. Telemedicine visits shorten absence time because often times children are treated faster,” adds Warnell. She says the program involves many people working together to create a seamless visit with a provider.
Funding for the Program
This year’s expansion is funded through the Rural Hospital Stabilization grant awarded by the State Office of Rural Health. The grant allowed for the purchase of equipment and software. “The initial outlay is for the equipment. The cost to run the program each year is minimal,” says Tallent. “There is a membership fee that we pay each year and the physicians are compensated by EHS.” The first year of the program was funded by EHS and the Effingham County Board of Education.
While it’s too early to calculate the cost savings, Tallent says they will continue to collect data and compare as the program moves forward. Regardless of those numbers, Tallent says the program is making a difference. “While there are a lot of schools using the school-based telemedicine program, there is no county near us that is doing this,” says Tallent. “It really seems to be the trend and you can essentially have someone seen by a physician across the state.”
The Future of TELEMED
Tallent says when the TELEMED program was brought up, decision makers jumped on board right away. “Our new chief executive officer, Fran Baker-Witt, is a visionary and an outside-of-the-box person. She saw the benefits to the community and gave the go-ahead,” says Tallent. “The pieces came together. The School Board and the providers were excited and loved the idea of telemedicine in our schools.”
After a successful first year and with the expansion this year, both EHS and the Effingham County Board of Education say they want to see the program in every school across the county. “Eventually we want to have telemedicine in every public school in the county. We want this to be a successful program, so we are diligent about our expansion,” says Warnell.
EHS is committed to being on the forefront of transforming healthcare for children and families. “If it’s difficult to get the health care they need, we need to go to them,” says Tallent. “As time goes on, we will work out our plan and add new schools each year. Just having the foresight to step outside of the box a little bit and try something cutting-edge, it says a lot about the whole program and partnership.”
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