Although telehealth, also sometimes called telemedicine, has been around for many years, it’s just now entering into the mainstream due to the Covid-19 pandemic demanding innovative virtual healthcare solutions. Telehealth has risen to a new level of importance during the pandemic, prompting the Federal Communications Commission to make significant policy changes that make it easier for patients, especially in rural areas, to get access to virtual health services.
Every school leader wants their students to be at their best. The use of telehealth technology is uniquely valuable to school districts, especially now as they develop remote learning solutions and prepare to safely welcome their students back to school once it’s safe to do so. What exactly does telehealth entail, and how can it support school leaders best serve their students as their schools reopen? In this article, we explore the definition of telehealth, how it helps students and patients, the value it brings during this crisis and beyond, and why it is particularly relevant for school leadership to understand and consider how to provide.
What is telehealth?
The general public is becoming much more familiar with the concept of “telehealth”. Although telehealth has been around for decades, its utility has become overtly apparent in recent months as we all adjust to a new virtually-based “normal”, and it’s not surprising that companies, hospitals, schools, and community organizations are starting to offer telehealth as a crucial component of their health and wellness services.
The Health Resources Services Administration’s official definition of telehealth is: “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration”.
Telehealth is the marriage of technology and health care; using a wide variety of technology and electronic communications to remotely provide any health-related service. One telehealth service that schools can take advantage of now is the ability to conduct real-time urgent care and conventional medical appointments over a video call.
Real-time video appointments help patients
To adapt to the needs of patients, hospitals, clinics, and other medical professionals are offering appointments in which you can meet with your health provider (whether it’s your medical doctor, nurse, or even mental health counselor) through a video call without having to physically be in the same place.
These virtual appointments must occur over a HIPAA-compliant platform to ensure the patient’s right to privacy (it’s important to note that some communication methods, like e-mail, are not HIPAA-compliant). This allows for patients to have secure access to a medical provider even if, for whatever reason, they aren’t able to travel to a hospital or a clinic in-person.
The societal and economic value of telehealth appointments
A key benefit of live virtual appointments, as opposed to in-person appointments, is the enormous expansion of healthcare access. People living in rural areas, people who don’t have access to transportation, people who cannot afford to miss work, medically underserved communities, and homebound people all benefit from the ease with which they can see a doctor through a telehealth conferencing system rather than getting themselves to a physical appointment.
Telehealth appointments also have economic value by lowering health care costs. For example, the Veterans Administration was one of the first large organizations to implement wide scale telehealth doctor visits for its patients. Studies found that the average cost to deliver telehealth services was approximately $1,600 per patient per year, compared to over $13,000 for traditional in-home and in-office services. Not only does telehealth save health systems money, it saves patients money, too. With telehealth, patients spend less money on things like unpaid time off and transportation costs to travel to in-person medical appointments.
What kind of issues can telehealth help with?
Telehealth platforms like Hazel (which focuses on telehealth for school-age students) can help patients with navigating a whole host of medical issues. Hazel’s certified medical professionals can provide quick and efficient care for 90% of both emergency and non-emergency needs.
Telehealth can be used to address immediate medical needs, such as a child experiencing a high fever. In these cases, the telehealth doctor can monitor symptoms, facilitate the administration of OTC medication, and avoid unnecessary urgent care and emergency room visits – which tend to be expensive for both the patient and for the broader health system.
Virtual appointments can also be used to help manage chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, or behavioral health concerns. Instead of having to travel on a regular basis to an in-person medical clinic, patients can more easily access their doctor through a telehealth platform, which may make them more likely to keep up with their treatment.
How telehealth supports healthy students
Healthy kids perform better at school. Schools have been providing health services for their students (through school nurses and school-based health centers) since the 1960s. In-school health has helped students and their families overcome financial barriers and promote more equal access to basic healthcare.
More recently, school districts have started to take advantage of telehealth solutions to improve broader healthcare access and support their students’ academic success. A focus on health and wellness supports the educational goals districts have for students. Student health is paramount to advancing academic measures such as increasing school attendance, the ability to focus in the classroom, and improving test scores.
School districts are currently facing incredible challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Nationwide, school districts are grappling with how to balance safe social distancing measures with students’ learning needs. Telehealth options are one solution to some of the problems that schools are facing.
A remote learning health option during Covid-19
School districts everywhere are currently facing the decisions to close their doors to their students for months. Students were sent home in the spring and have yet to be welcomed back, although many schools are preparing to reopen.
When students were sent home, many of them lost their only access to affordable and convenient health care provided by the school nurse or at the school-based health center. Schools quickly realized that if they were going to be providing education remotely, they needed to provide healthcare remotely as well. This is especially important for schools in rural or medically underserved communities.
Telehealth ensures that students are still receiving the healthcare they need while learning from home. This can include access to primary care providers but also speciality services like behavioral health or the management of chronic illnesses.
Ensure safe reopening of schools
Many schools are now grappling with the dilemma of how to safely reopen and welcome students back when the fall comes, with the increasing risk of Covid-19 lingering on everyone’s minds. Health and safety are a top priority for school districts as students return to campus, and school officials can implement social distancing, symptom screening, and hygiene practices to manage the situation effectively. In addition to these measures, ensuring access to healthcare is one of the most effective ways to protect students’ physical and mental health as everyone readjusts to in-person learning.
An efficient telehealth option can ensure that every student receives quality health care virtually, either at school or at home, and can help school leaders react and make decisions quickly when a school- or community-wide Covid-19 spread is detected.
Expanded access for all communities
Some students are more vulnerable to completely losing access to health providers while schools are closed. For example, children living in rural or otherwise medically underserved communities might not have access to nearby healthcare providers. Studies have shown that school-based health centers utilizing telehealth were more likely to reach students in rural communities than school-based health centers who do not. With an estimated 13 million young people living in rural, medically underserved areas, this is a benefit of telehealth that we cannot ignore.
Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families may have financial constraints preventing access to regular preventive care. These disparities have only been magnified by the current pandemic, and children need access to healthcare now more than ever before. To help ensure students have a fair shot at academic success, schools have a tremendous opportunity to promote increased access to quality healthcare. Telehealth is an excellent solution that is viable both during and beyond the pandemic.
Research indicates that when schools provide healthcare services for their students it has a measurable impact on reducing chronic absenteeism. These services can help manage health conditions that put students at risk for missing school due to adverse symptoms or need for medical treatment during the school day. For example, asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism, accounting for about 14 million absences each school year, and students with asthma are more than three times more likely to have ten or more absences than their peers. Similarly, students miss nearly 2 million days of school due to dental health problems, and are three times more likely to miss school than their peers without dental pain.
Hazel’s telehealth program has made a direct, positive impact on school attendance for students in school districts across the country. For example, in a California school where Hazel services were available, a student with chronic absences due to her asthma condition was able to receive reliable medical support getting her back into the classroom on a regular basis. This student was seen by a Hazel provider over multiple virtual visits conducted in the school nurse’s office. The Hazel doctor discovered that her family was struggling to access regular and reliable care for her asthma. Her Hazel doctor was able to issue a new inhaler prescription, support the family with how to fill it, and get her back into the classroom quickly.
Improved academic outcomes
The evidence is undeniable: healthy kids perform better at school. Research shows the inextricable link between health and academic achievement. Students in poorer health struggle more academically. Students who struggle at school are also more likely to develop health conditions as adults.
Providing access to telehealth options supports students with implementing healthy behaviors in all areas of their lives. With increased healthcare access, chronic conditions (such as asthma or obesity) can be better-managed. By enabling better access to care for each student, school districts can help to close both health and academic achievement gaps for children.
How can Hazel help?
School leaders are faced with an overwhelming number of decisions when considering how to reopen schools. There are numerous factors to consider regarding health and safety, all with students, and their families, and school faculty at the forefront. Hazel is here to help.
Hazel is the only school-based telehealth company operating in the US. With technology that is both HIPAA- and FERPA-certified, students can access medical attention in under 5 minutes with the touch of a button. Hazel provides telehealth services through text, phone, and video. This opens up additional access within the home, even in locations where students have limited broadband connectivity or access to wifi.
Hazel works with school nurses and parents to facilitate easy navigation of the technology to get students the care they need. We partner with school districts nationwide to provide both in-school and in-home virtual medical appointments helping to close both health and academic achievement gaps. We provide each school partner with all the technology and medical equipment necessary to deliver care to students they need while they’re at school. While at home, providers can support families with urgent care needs as well as coordination with local providers and pharmacies.
Hazel’s board-certified medical providers are specifically trained to work with diverse student populations and needs. Numerous physicians speak Spanish, in addition to providing language translation through phone services and in documentation for other languages spoken. To date, Hazel has provided over 20 thousand visits to students, and over 1 million students attend schools in our partner districts.
All children should have equal access to quality healthcare. We’re here to help your district support families with access to health and wellness services, and provide students with care and resources for urgent care needs as well as potential virus symptoms.
This article was written by Leah Liebler. Leah is a marketer, mom, and mental health advocate. She is passionate about innovative healthcare and education solutions that empower children to thrive.