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19 telemedicine sites have opened in NKY schools for students and staff. More could be on the way

hands typing at a computer with a stethoscope lying beside it on a wood desk
National Cancer Institute

Sara Browne grew up in a rural community and knows how difficult it can be to access quality health care. Now, as the director of nursing at St. Elizabeth Hospital's Virtual Health Department, she's working to make receiving medical care easier for those living outside major cities.

This year, St. Elizabeth and Northern Kentucky University partnered to bring telemedicine sites to 19 school buildings in rural Northern Kentucky to connect students and staff virtually with area physicians.

Browne says these sites will mean a lot to rural schools and their communities because they bring a needed service that was once a long car ride away closer to home.

"What virtual health offers is more convenient care for those patients," Browne said. "Whether that is relieving a transportation burden on someone; reducing the amount of time they're spending in their car away from their family or away from their children, away from their work; spending less on gas."

According to Browne, some people in rural communities are not getting the treatment they need due to the distance they have to travel to reach their nearest clinic or hospital. She explains this barrier is similar to other inconveniences that come with rural living.

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"We used to joke when I was a kid that if we didn't have it in the house for dinner you weren't going to have it," Browne said. "Mom wasn't going to run out and get something for dinner. If it wasn't in the house then we weren't eating it tonight. We're not running out because 'Oh shoot, we forgot shredded cheese!' That doesn't happen out here."

How it works

But health care is more critical than shredded cheese, so NKU's Institute for Health Innovation stepped in to set up the telehealth sites and connect St. Elizabeth with schools who wanted to add the service.

Dr. Valerie Hardcastle from NKU says St. Elizabeth was the perfect hospital to collaborate with because of its reach in Northern Kentucky and its already-established virtual health system.

"St. Elizabeth, who's been a fantastic partner in this, is willing to provide the care and of course, they can do it from their telehealth center which means they don't have to pay a nurse practitioner or a physician to sit in an office. They can have that person doing all of the different sites at once," Hardcastle said.

The telemedicine sites are simple and don't involve much more than a computer, internet connection, and a few digital devices.

Through a video call, a doctor can speak with a patient and do more extensive examinations remotely. With the help of a school nurse or adult, information can be relayed to a doctor through the use of a digital otoscope or stethoscope to look at a student's ear or hear their heartbeat.

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Still, they don't exist to replace the role of a school nurse who deals with the daily bumps and injuries that occur on a normal school day. For one, even though it's in a school, the telemedicine visits cost money and are billed like regular doctor's appointments, but the sites can help diagnose illnesses and more efficiently connect students to further treatment without needing to travel a long distance for a brief appointment.

Telemedicine sites can go almost anywhere, but for Hardcastle, schools made the most sense. They're often centrally located and provide their own transportation, which makes it easier for more people to get to.

"Everybody knows how to get school," Hardcastle told WVXU. "If we could provide health care for people in the schools that would be available when they're dropping their kids off or picking them up and available to their kids, that would be a way to leverage health care into the system in an easy way."

Hardcastle says it can also help improve attendance because students are able to be diagnosed and prescribed medication sooner. On top of that, students don't have to miss too much of the school day to visit a clinic.

So far, schools have responded well, and word about the service is spreading.

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Though the project is still new, Browne and Hardcastle both say there are plans for more. The hope is that this initiative will introduce more people to telemedicine and help them get on track with their own health care. In a way, the sites are attempting to address a need that will then create a greater demand.

The sites are in Northern Kentucky schools for now, but Browne says the next step is introducing the same concept to schools in other rural areas like southeast Indiana.

Where the telehealth sites are located

You can currently find the telehealth sites at the following locations:

  • Owen County High School
  • Maurice Bowling Middle School
  • Owen County Lower/Upper Elementary School
  • Carroll County High School
  • Carroll County Middle School
  • Richard B. Carmell Elementary
  • Kathryn Winn Primary School
  • Pendleton High School
  • Sharp Middle School
  • Northern Elementary School
  • Southern Elementary School
  • Gallatin County High School
  • Gallatin County Middle School
  • Gallatin County Lower Elementary
  • Gallatin County Upper Elementary
Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.