A student with a sore throat sticks out his tounge and opens wide. A nurse has just taken his temperature and it’s time for the doctor to examine the student’s throat, nose and ears. It seems like a routine visit to a doctor’s office.
Except the doctor is 400 miles away.
Welcome to another day at the office for doctors at the school based telemedicine program inside the Rice Medical Center (RMC) in Eagle Lake, Texas.
In this case, while the doctor works in Eagle Lake, the student is attending the Texas Challenge Academy in Sheffield — a small town with a population around 600 in far West Texas.
“To the child who had the sore throat and his parents, it’s hard to quantify the comfort level of having medical care almost immediately available,” said Jim Janek, CEO of the Rice Medical Center. “Having top-flight medical care in this setting, where access to care is so limited, is pretty special.”
Janek spent more than 20 years working in health care in Georgia and witnessed school-based telemedicine programs thrive by providing needed care to places that didn’t have access to quality health services. He watched a successful program start with one school district and expand to 54 school districts — in just five years.
“I really watched the evolution of telemedicine,” Janek said. “When I got back to Texas in 2011, I didn’t see the type of traction in telemedicine that I had seen in Georgia. Now, we’re looking to make it blossom in Texas.”
RMC began its school based telemedicine program at Texas Challenge Academy in March. They installed telemedicine equipment at the school and at RMC. A school nurse first sees the student inside the Academy’s clinic and then contacts the doctor when it’s time for an exam.
“It was a great place to start,” said Dr. Russell Thomas, RMC’s physician liaison for the telemedicine program. “We learned how to do this kind of medicine and do it well. We can see 50 to 60 kids in a couple of days. It’s equivalent to a person-to-person visit in a comfortable setting.”
Doctors provide primary care services and urgent care when needed — treating everything from fevers and rashes to sprained ankles. Dr. Thomas says the technology offered with the telemedicine equipment is in some cases better than if the patient was in his office.
“Telemedicine is not a therapy, it’s a tool,” Thomas says. “The stethoscope has blue-tooth technology and is clearer than the one used in the office. The high-definition camera is like looking at skin through a magnifying glass.”
Dr. Russell Thomas performs an exam using RMC’s telemedicine equipment.
Now, with help from the Episcopal Health Foundation, RMC’s school telemedicine program is expanding to two new school districts — Rice Consolidated ISD and East Benard ISD. The program will now serve all students in seven campuses throughout Colorado County.
“We’re aiming to transform community health and one of our key strategies to help make that happen is to increase access to health services,” said Elena Marks, EHF’s president and CEO. “This program is designed to not only improve student health and attendance, but it increases the availability of health services at school.”
EHF’s $120,500 grant provides equipment, training, and connectivity for the program.
“Our partnership with EHF made expansion possible now,” said Janek. “Many of these new students are uninsured or underinsured. Before, these students would probably stay home, miss school, and not be seen by a physician. Now, they’ll have access to this kind of high-quality care.”
Thomas and Janek say they hope to expand the telemedicine project to even more schools by making a commitment to evaluating the program and tracking outcomes of the students.
“We hope to not only do this program well, but to make it part of a huge project,” Thomas said. “With detailed data collection, we’re evaluating that data and we want to share our model with others.”