As a school nurse, Heather Ray cleans skinned knees and peers down scratchy sore throats. She can stop a nose bleed, and soothe an upset stomach. Her day can be going smoothly, and then a playground tumble will send her running.
She loves being able to take care of what’s hurting and tell students they’ll be OK.
“It’s a good feeling when I’m out in the community and kids run up and say, ‘You’re the nurse! You fixed my boo-boo!’ It makes me feel good that they know who I am and are happy to see me,” she says.
Heather lives in Marion, a town in western North Carolina where she has lived all her life. Close-knit and rural, this is where she hopes her own children remain and raise their families.
Her office at West Marion Elementary School is near the principal’s, tucked in a corner beyond wide hallways and busy classrooms. Step inside and you’ll find the standard tools of her trade: Gatorade bottles, a cot, tissues boxes and canisters of band aids. (Even if you don’t need one, a band aid, she says, always makes things better.)
But you’ll also see high-tech videoconferencing equipment that lets Heather connect patients with health care providers miles away. A special stethoscope transmits sounds. An electronic otoscope provides high-definition images. Doctors can examine students at multiple schools without traveling.
Led by the Center for Rural Health Innovation and the Mission Center for Telehealth, this school-based telemedicine program enhances acute, primary and specialty care delivery in rural areas where meeting needs can be challenging.
It began in two neighboring counties as a way to improve access to comprehensive services, increase classroom attendance and decrease time away from work for parents and caregivers. A $701,000 grant from The Duke Endowment to Mission Health Systems in nearby Asheville is building on the program’s success to cover an additional 5,000 public school students in the North Carolina mountains.
Across the state, the number of school-based health centers has grown over the past five years, with 56 now serving more than 15,000 K-12 students. But school-based telemedicine programs are relatively new. One study showed they saved families an average of $101 to $224, and 3.4 hours in missed work time.
Heather began using telehealth in the fall of 2014. Now, if she believes a student needs specialized attention, she has instant access to experts for a timely diagnosis and prescription. She can offer “virtual care” for teachers and staff, too.
The program helps her keep people healthy, and feel better when they’re sick.
“Even before I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to be a nurse,” Heather says. “I love being able to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”
Lin B. Hollowell III
Director of Health Care