Funding stymies school-provider telehealth collaborations

exterior of school building
Schools and health systems are partnering to provide virtual visits for students. (Credit: Alan Levine / CC BY 2.0)

School systems across the country are partnering with local hospital systems and pediatricians, using telehealth technology to provide better care to students.

Howard County, Maryland, has a telemedicine initiative in five elementary schools that aims to improve access to healthcare for students, reduce illness-related absences and improve student educational outcomes, for example. 

In Texas, a program that began with just two preschools in 2013 has grown to nearly 100 schools across the state, according to Stat. Children’s Health System of Texas, which partners with the schools, has conducted more than 4,000 virtual doctor visits with school nurses in the last four years.

And a 10-year program in North Carolina partners with primary care providers to offer care to 33 schools in the western part of the state.

RELATED: Telehealth’s payment conundrum persists as innovation marches forward

Officials with these programs see a dual benefit of providing children necessary care while keeping them out of the emergency room. Reimbursement comes from private insurance and, occasionally, Medicaid, grants or local government funding. 

But the costs to launch telehealth programs can be significant and funding is inconsistent.

“One thing we need is sustainability,” Stormee Williams, M.D., a Texas pediatrician, told Stat. “Waivers and grants aren’t going to last forever.”

RELATED: Maryland pediatric practices feel the ripple effect of school telemedicine programs

The Maryland program experienced similar issues when grant funding for a telemedicine initiative dried up, prompting some physicians to drop out, as FierceHealthcare reported. However, the program did prompt several practices to test out and adopt new equipment to expand services beyond the school environment.

Broadly, telehealth is gaining favor among healthcare executives, who see it as a way to gain a competitive advantage.

In Texas, which recently passed legislation to expand telehealth services, health systems are exploring new options for direct-to-consumer telehealth services, something other providers have experimented with in places like Pennsylvania.