Priority Health launches program to back placement of service dogs in schools

Worsening mental health among young people is a growing national concern, and, in a bid to tackle the issue in its home state of Michigan, insurer Priority Health is going to the dogs—literally.

The payer, which covers more than 1 million people in the Great Lake State, is joining forces with Canines for Change to launch Priority Pups, a program that will back the deployment of five working service dogs in schools across the state.

Muskegon Public Schools is the first district to participate in the program and will secure the services of Scout, a goldendoodle. The insurer will work over the next several months to place four additional dogs in other school districts and sees potential to scale even further should the program bear fruit.

Praveen Thadani, president of Priority Health, told Fierce Healthcare in an interview that the program aligns with the insurer's broader goals of addressing health equity and investing in the communities it serves.

He said addressing youth mental health through the school setting is critical, as the team views access to education as a key social determinant of health.

"We feel we can make a very tangible impact on the mental health of Michigan students and enhance the learning experience for students and teachers," he said, "ultimately tying it back to this massive social determinant of health—and making them healthier as well."

In the announcement, Priority Health said recent research suggests that more than half of parents in Michigan are worried about the mental state of their children. While mental health concerns among youth were on the rise before the pandemic, COVID-19 only accelerated this trend, as it threw kids' routines into chaos.

Research shows, though, that there are positive effects for students who can interact with a support animal during the school day, Priority Health said. This includes a boost in confidence, improvements in reading and problem-solving skills and a reduction in stress.

Thadani said Muskegon was chosen as the initial district because it "has some of the highest mental health crisis levels in the state."

"Scout, our newest staff member, will contribute to a more relaxed and positive learning environment for our students," said Matthew Cortez, superintendent of Muskegon Public Schools, in the press release. "MPS will continue to build these positive community-based relationships that develop our 21st century learning environments for our students and staff.”

The dogs in the program will be placed with in-district handlers, Priority Health said, and Canines for Change will train them for the specific needs of each school. For instance, in an elementary school, a service dog can comfort students who may be feeling homesick or help kids struggling with coursework feel more relaxed while in class.

Thadani said that should the program produce positive results, the insurer is committed to place additional dogs beyond the initial five. He said that though it's early days in Muskegon, anecdotally, signs are positive.

"Based on our very initial placement in Muskegon, we're seeing some very early signs, of course anecdotal, of success," he said.