Readin’, writin’ and checkups: More schools to add health clinics

When one of Juanita Jones’ children gets sick, it means a $30 ride to the emergency room. When she runs out of her blood pressure medication, she can wait weeks for a refill.

Jones is counting the days until a new health clinic opens this month right inside her children’s south Atlanta elementary school.

“I’m going to be one of the first patients,” she said.

The new clinic, in a former classroom at Dobbs Elementary School, is part of a rapid expansion of school-based health centers in Georgia and nationally.

New clinics are scheduled to open at Atlanta’s Dobbs and Miles Elementary School this year. A third clinic at Hollis Innovation Academy, which replaced Bethune Elementary, could be in the works.

Local nonprofit Whitefoord Inc. will open a clinic at Atlanta’s King Middle School this fall and plans to offer some health care services at D.H. Stanton Elementary School next year. And more communities statewide are planning for their own school clinics to serve students and staff and, eventually, the entire neighborhood.

The number of health clinics inside Georgia schools has risen eight-fold since 2010.

“School-based health centers eliminate every barrier to health care that you can think of,” said Dr. Veda Johnson, who has led Emory University’s work to expand the clinics. “It’s an idea whose time has come in the state of Georgia.”

For years, Whitefoord Inc.’s clinics at Whitefoord Elementary School and Coan Middle School were the only school-based clinics in Georgia, Johnson said.

In 2010 a group of private funders led by Emory University began working with local groups across Georgia interested in starting school clinics in their communities, helping them plan and providing startup funding.

There are now 22 new school-based health centers created from that process, plus more on deck, Johnson said. The clinics serve some of Georgia’s poorest families.

All provide basic health care like school physicals, vaccinations and examinations for sore throats and other problems. Some also offer dental or mental health services. Most are staffed by a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant overseen by a doctor, though some do have a doctor on site, Johnson said. Most start out serving just the students and staff, but eventually serve entire communities.

The cost to a school district is minimal, usually a converted classroom and sometimes the cost of renovating the space. After two years, most clinics are financially self-supporting through public and private insurance payments and, in some cases, federal support, Johnson said.

Studies have shown that in-school health clinics can lead to lower absenteeism, emergency room use and Medicaid costs.

Just putting a clinic in an empty classroom isn’t a guarantee of success, though. “You have to be intentional about your work,” Johnson said. That means having strategies for things like managing chronic diseases like asthma or ensuring students get preventative screenings. But “if you do it well, it will impact the overall achievement for these children.”

At Dobbs Elementary, principal Charnita West has had to call 911 at times to get help for students with chronic illnesses. A licensed practical nurse is on site two days a week. The rest of the time, staff “use our motherly instincts,” she said.

She said Dobbs’ new clinic, which will be operated by staff from Southside Medical Center, will help keep her staff and students healthy and right where she wants them — in school.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” she said.

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