Study finds telehealth services fill health care gaps for rural schools

Published on August 17, 2023

Telemedicine Video Call To Doctor On Laptop

A new study from University of Iowa researchers, published online in “Telemedicine and e-Health,” shows rural telehealth services provide valuable support to rural schools and students.

School-based telehealth services are in high demand, especially in underserved and rural communities, and advancements in telehealth have made clinical resources more accessible to students in these areas.  

To assess the impact of school-based telehealth services, a team of researchers led by Marcia Ward, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the UI College of Public Health, conducted a study over four semesters to examine outcomes for students receiving primary and urgent care through telehealth in 40 schools across the U.S.

Over the course of the study, 2,769 students received primary care via telehealth, and 2,238 received urgent care telehealth. Primary care services were provided by a primary care provider, often with a registered nurse involved, while urgent care services were mainly delivered by a registered nurse. Primary care telehealth offered various services, including medication management, counseling, sports physicals, assessments, and evaluations. Urgent care telehealth primarily involved assessments.

The researchers found that both services successfully returned most students to the classroom without further follow-up, reducing the need to seek health care outside of school. Additionally, 67.7% of students using primary care telehealth did not have a primary care provider outside of school, suggesting that telehealth can fill a gap in service in many rural areas.

“Rural, frontier, and underserved communities face many challenges in access to health care, which prompts schools to be innovative with care models to serve students, especially since many do not have a school nurse available on-site,” Ward says. “Telehealth can provide immediate access to health care for students in need, which also presents advantages to teachers and parents.”

The study was co-authored by Kimberly Merchant, Fred Ullrich, and Knute Carter from the University of Iowa, Divya Bhagianadh from Rutgers University, Kristin Smith and Theresa Gillette from Coldwater Regional Hospital in Michigan, and Sheila Freed and Luke Mack from Avel eCare in South Dakota.