Ga. School Diagnoses Students with Virtual Doctors

Telemedicine Pilot Program Ofers On-Site Care Over the Internet

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Miles away from this Nashville, Ga., school, a physician’s assistant hears a sound in a student’s chest. Based on the catch in the child’s breathing, the physician’s assistant diagnoses asthmatic bronchitis.

The student has never left the school. The physician’s assistant has never left her office in another South Georgia city. And the school nurse has information for the child’s parents, who never had to miss a minute of work to take their child to the doctor.

That situation illustrates just one case in the Berrien school system’s pilot participation in a “telemed” program. But it underscores what one day may be the new way in which children throughout Georgia and the United States visit the school nurse and the doctor.

Through computer technology, Berrien County Elementary School’s Med Clinic allows students to see a doctor while at school, and for a doctor to see the child without ever leaving the physician’s offices. Berrien County is the only Georgia school system with telemedicine capabilities, according to coordinators.

The Berrien County Collaborative, a Nashville, Ga.-based nonprofit organization established to improve schools by supporting strong peer-adult relationships and providing health services, pursued the program for the 3,000-student county school district. To fund the program, the collaborative applied for and won grants from the Governor’s Office’s Systems of Care, Emory University’s Urban Health Initiative, and the Georgia Health Care Foundation.

The Med Clinic opened in Berrien Elementary School in August. Since then, the program has grown to include 22 percent of the school’s population, says Sherrie Williams, the clinic’s program director.

All Berrien Elementary students, teachers, and administrators are eligible to take part in the program. Participating families complete paperwork and provide appropriate cost-coverage information for insurance or Medicare payments.

What the Med Clinic does is provide the means for medical care without a child having to leave the classroom for an appointment, or a parent having to lose time at work or money from a paycheck, or a teacher keeping a doctor’s appointment without the school system needing to hire a substitute.

If a mother needs a child to see a doctor, she can make an appointment through the Med Clinic that same morning. The clinic then e-mails participating physicians, Dr. Brian Griner of Valdosta or Dr. Richard E. Wheeler of Nashville.

The Med Clinic works similar to a walk-in clinic. A student is called from class when a doctor or physician’s assistant becomes available. Or a sick child can stay in the clinic until a doctor becomes available.

Berrien school nurse Lorene Nix ministers to the child on site. The doctor or physician’s assistant at a different site can see Ms. Nix and the child on a computer screen, and they, in turn, can see the doctor. They can also hear each other.

'Wave of the Future'

Everyone can also see points of examination. Ms. Nix uses a lighted camera wand to look down students’ throats or into their ears. On the screen, the doctor can see what the camera wand reveals. Doctors recently diagnosed two children with strep using that approach, according to Ms. Williams.

Through the telemedicine capability, the Med Clinic also offers psychiatric care to children in need. A Thomasville dermatologist also participates in the program.

The Med Clinic is also capable of taking blood and other samples normally taken in a doctor’s office and then delivering them for lab work.

As a school nurse, Ms. Nix has found a new level of satisfaction with the Med Clinic.

“In the past, I couldn’t do much more than call a parent and tell them their child was sick,” she said. “Now, I’m more involved in helping the students.”

Ms. Williams says Berrien Elementary is the first step in bringing the program to all five county schools during the next five years.

This month, Berrien Primary School becomes part of the program. Ms. Williams has already processed numerous applications for participation in the Berrien Primary program prior to its opening. Berrien Elementary participation continues growing.

Ms. Williams believes telemedicine and school-based health clinics aren’t just the future for Berrien County schools, but for schools across the nation. “This is definitely the wave of the future,” she said.

Vol. 30, Issue 21, Page 10

Published in Print: February 23, 2011, as Georgia School Diagnoses Students With Virtual Doctors
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