To harness the power of technology to help children live healthier lives, the Karen S. Rheuban Center for Telehealth at University of Virginia Health System is helping create four school-based telehealth centers in Bland County and Martinsville.
The project aims to provide children with conditions from autism to asthma better access to specialists and coordinated care in a region with a shortage of health care providers. It also aims to make health education more fun and engaging through games, apps and friendly competition.
Supported by a four-year, $1.1 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, the health centers are slated to open in January at Bland County Elementary School and Bland County High School. Additional centers are scheduled to open in Martinsville at Albert Harris Elementary School and Martinsville High School during the 2017-18 school year.
Primary care will be provided at the school health centers through the Bland County Medical Clinic and the Martinsville Henry County Coalition for Health and Wellness, with specialty care provided by UVA and the Virginia Institute of Autism through secure telehealth connections.
“We hope to improve access to coordinated primary care, help parents and school personnel assist children with special health care needs and help spark a demonstrable improvement in healthy behaviors related to fitness, nutrition and oral health,” said Kathy Wibberly, director of the Mid-Atlantic Telehealth Resource Center, which is based at UVA’s telehealth center.
One aim of the school health centers is to create “virtual care teams” for children with special care needs, including students with autism, asthma, diabetes and behavioral health conditions.
“We want to facilitate communication between parents, primary care providers, classroom teachers and specialty care providers,” Wibberly said.
Care teams will have several secure, private tools to communicate. These will include videoconferencing and text messaging as well as devices that can transmit patient data, such as heart and lung sounds, along with images from inside the ear and throat.
Along with team members from UVA, the Virginia Institute of Autism, the four schools, Bland County Medical Clinic and the Martinsville Henry County Coalition for Health and Wellness, care teams will also include staff from the Mount Rogers Community Services Board and Piedmont Community Services.
“As the prevalence of autism has grown dramatically in the last decade, rural communities have had serious challenges addressing the need,” said Ethan Long, executive director for the Virginia Institute of Autism. “By leveraging our partnership with UVA’s Telemedicine division, we’re able to extend our reach and provide high-quality, evidence-based services to places that have never had access to that level of care and support.”
The school health centers will also encourage healthy lifestyle choices by making health education into a game, using mobile devices and apps that mix entertainment, friendly competition, education and health monitoring.
“The Pokémon Go craze is one example of how games can incentivize fitness,” Wibberly said.
The partners will collect data on how the school health centers are impacting students’ health, with the potential to expand the project to more schools.
“If the school health centers are successful in these two school districts, our hope is that the project would be cost-effective and sustainable, making this an easily expandable model that could get implemented throughout all rural school districts,” Wibberly said.