For many of us when we were younger, the school nurse’s office only served two purposes: care if immediately required or cover if we wanted to avoid a class. Thankfully, our schools’ limited role in the health of our youth and their families is undergoing a transformation as communities start to establish substantial school-based health clinics.
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In November, Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and the Norman and Ruth Rales Foundation announced a $5 million initiative to create healthcare centers at schools in Baltimore City. Similar clinics are launching in school districts in Connecticut, Oregon, Tennessee and Michigan.
“We have known for a long time that healthier students miss fewer school days, can focus and learn better, and as a result fare much better academically,” said Sara Johnson, associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine and a public health expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But we haven’t been good at synchronizing health and education to ensure that medical issues do not interfere with a child’s progress and development. Our new initiative will align the two to ensure optimal health and learning.”
Each of these new school-based clinics is specifically targeted at “medically underserved” communities where residents struggle to receive routine medical care and children may have unmet health needs. Putting health clinics in schools overcomes a major obstacle to healthcare—access. Traditional barriers, including availability, cost, transportation and time away from work for parents or guardians are removed. The two schools in Baltimore that now have advanced health clinics serve a combined population of 1,500 K-8 students – more than 80% of which is considered low-income.
Students with chronic conditions or social and behavioral health needs are highly likely to miss significant classroom time when left untreated. Health-related issues contributed to a reported 57 percent of students’ absences in Texas and chronic illness was the leading cause for missed school days among middle-school students in Oregon, according to recent surveys.
Beyond school attendance, students with chronic conditions and known social determinants that are left untreated are also more likely to require complex and costly care. Initiatives such as the school-based clinics provide an opportunity to deliver true care coordination. Providers who are working with vulnerable adolescent populations are not only able to better preemptively identify the health or social issues at hand, but they also present a better opportunity to connect the young patients with appropriate care and social services to make sure they are able to thrive—both in academics and in health.
Delivering care in schools is a great step in breaking the cycle that has created generations of healthcare and educational inadequacies in low-income communities. As students become accustomed to regular healthcare, they vastly increase their health literacy and develop into lifelong advocates for themselves and their families.