Louisiana Schools Hope Virtual Doctor Visits Can Help Sick Students Return To Class Faster

Sep 26, 2019

Many of us have been there: you get a call from school saying your child is sick, and needs to be picked up. The logistics of leaving work, getting to school and getting to the doctor can be a nightmare. Now NOLA Public Schools and Jefferson Parish Schools are using technology to help parents out, and get kids back in the classroom faster. It's called telemedicine, a rapidly growing field that lets doctors provide care for patients using remote technology like video.

Success Preparatory Academy School Nurse Michone Wells specializes in making kids feel better. And she can handle a lot.

"Headaches, stomach aches, and surprisingly a lot of bug bites!" Wells explained, listing the most common problems kids come to her for. She treats students in a small, sunny room, with a tiled floor at Success Preparatory Academy, a K-8 charter school in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood. There’s a window, a blue patient’s bed, a sink, and toilet behind a stall. Wells says most situations can be handled with a nap, a bandaid, or cup of ice water.

"Water is like the magic cure for everything," Wells said. "I say 'I'll make you a cup of ice water,' and it magically cures everything."

But sometimes, the symptoms look more serious - a sore throat with white patches in the back - that could be strep throat. A red, leaky eye could be pinkeye. Both require antibiotics, prescribed by a doctor or nurse practitioner.

In the past, Wells would have to send the student home, and hope the parents were able to get the child to a doctor. But this year, things are much easier. The doctor comes to Success Prep - virtually.

Here's how it works.  In her office, Nurse Wells pulls out a laptop and logs on. She opens up a video chat with Sarah Scheuremann, a pediatric nurse practioner at Children's Hospital of New Orleans.

Scheuremann appears on the computer screen in a white doctor’s coat.  Through the laptop, Scheuermann can see students, diagnose many illnesses and prescribe medications. She can even look inside students’ noses on a video feed from a special otoscope that Nurse Wells uses.

Success Prep is one of 22 schools in the area participating in this new telehealth partnership between Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, and Jefferson and Orleans Parish schools. Schools have to get parent permission before the student can be seen virtually by the doctor. And the visit isn’t free - the hospital bills the parent, their insurance company or Medicaid.

But the program gets a needed doctors visit taken care of - which means a quicker recovery and a quicker return to the classroom, says Kelli Jordan, director of School Support and Improvement for NOLA Public Schools.

"A kid may come in with a stomach ache, or a kid may come to them presenting with symptoms of pink eye. And they’re out of class. And then they have to call the parent," says Jordan. "The parent may or may not have transportation. [They] may or may not be able to get off of work to get to the student right away."

So the student misses a day of school, hanging out in Nurse Wells’ office. And for something like strep or pink-eye, students have to see a doctor before they can come back to school - they need an antibiotic to start feeling better and stop being contagious. But Jordan says it can be hard for families to make a trip to the doctor. Coordinating work schedules around a doctor’s visit gets tricky, especially for single parents. And about 1 in 5 households in New Orleans don’t have a car.

Adds Jordan:  "And so we’re looking at another two days before the days before the kids may be able to access pediatric care outside of school. And so the days the hours that they’re missing learning just continue to add up."

Jordan hopes the program will address the district’s attendance issue. The most recent data shows nearly a quarter of students are chronically absent - meaning they missed more than 15 days of school in a year. Nurse Wells says with this new program, she doesn’t have to worry as much about her students not getting the care they need. The telehealth program is a game-changer for her. But some things will stay the same.

"I’m gonna always have to put Band-Aids on," says Wells. "Always."

If the program works well this year, Children’s Hospital says it may extend it to other schools in Louisiana, or add more services, like online behavioral and mental health care.

Support for WWNO’s education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.