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Telehealth Expands Health-Care Access at Rappahannock Schools

The Virginia school district has contracted with a local health-care provider to provide technology and telehealth services to reduce student absences and travel times to and from clinics and hospitals.

Telehealth has become an attractive option for patients in rural areas.
Travel distances to and from health-care facilities are often much greater in rural America, leading some school districts to look to telehealth programs in lieu of in-person services. As K-12 officials consider the viability of remote care, Rappahannock County Public Schools in Virginia have introduced their own telehealth program to help close health-care gaps among the district’s rural student body.

According to RCPS Project Coordinator Susan Stoltzman, the district formally launched the pilot program this week after officials approved a partnership over the summer with Valley Health, a health-care provider that loaned telehealth technology and pediatricians to the program. The addition of telehealth acts as part of a school-based “Wellness Center,” which includes new in-person mental health support services and counseling for students, funded through grants from the PATH Foundation.

Using telehealth technology, Stoltzman said school nurses and practitioners can work together remotely to diagnose conditions like strep throat, ear infections and potentially contagious rashes, without the need for parents to drive students to clinics and then to pharmacies.

“They usually had to go to one of the surrounding towns, which is at least half an hour,” she said. “Now, the whole county is interested in telehealth, and COVID has changed so much about the way we think about these things.”

According to its Director of Operations Benjamin Dolewski, Valley Health began discussing the idea of bringing pediatricians into Rappahannock schools in person prior to the pandemic, but plans were put on hold due to COVID-19 closures. The goal was to increase access to personalized care from qualified pediatricians.

Since that time, he said, telehealth technology has made significant strides, making remote care a more viable and cost-effective alternative.

“The technology was really growing, and we implemented telehealth at a lot of our Valley Health clinics almost overnight when we were trying to keep folks in their homes and social distanced,” he said. “We had a lot of new technology at our disposal.”

According to Dolewski, Valley Health’s telehealth machine, or “cart,” is now at Rappahannock Elementary School, ready to be used for diagnostics. The cart also includes point-of-care COVID-19 testing capabilities to assist in coronavirus response efforts.

“It has high-def scopes so you can look at rashes and cuts and look in throats and ears. There’s a stethoscope, so you can listen to lung and heart sounds,” he said of the telehealth machine’s capabilities. “It’s a little bit more robust than your telehealth visit you think of where you connect to your physician via phone.”

“For example, with strep throat, the nurse can hold up the scope to the throat, and the provider can see the tonsils are inflamed. The nurse can then run a 15-minute or 10-minute point-of-care test for strep throat and easily diagnose it, and then the physician can call in a prescription,” he continued. “We can do that all-in-one stop and then call in the prescription.”

Dolewski said K-12 schools are ideal places for telehealth pilot programs, due to the types of illnesses common among students in that age range.

“That’s when you’re seeing earaches, sore throats, things that are less chronic,” he said.

How many students will use the program remains to be seen as the district awaits the return of some parental consent forms for students to opt in. This week was also marked by a return to online learning Monday due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, according to local news reports.

However, Stoltzman said nearly two years of social distancing have made many parents comfortable with telehealth. She said the district is considering utilizing the technology for counseling services moving forward.

“People are increasingly accepting of telemedicine, where they maybe otherwise wouldn’t be, or maybe they’d do it for themselves, but they wouldn’t do it for their kids,” she said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.