BAMBERG - Palmetto Care Connections, a nonprofit telehealth network, is working to improve health care access in rural underserved communities statewide. A recent project will involve improving that access in schools in Bamberg, Barnwell and Allendale counties.
The Bamberg-based network secured a three-year, $158,214 matching grant from the Washington, D.C.-based Rural Utilities Service’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s RUS program administers programs that provide much-needed infrastructure or infrastructure improvements to rural communities.
“Palmetto Care Connections began in 2010, and our goal was to increase access to care through the use of telehealth primarily in the rural areas. We work all over the state,” PCC Executive Director Kathy Schwarting said.
The PCC is a partner of the South Carolina Telehealth Alliance, which provided matching funds to help support the project, Schwarting said.
“There is no cost to the schools. The equipment comes with a three-year warranty and maintenance that was paid through the grant. The state legislature over the last three years has also put a lot of funding in the state for telemedicine," she said.
“That money flows through the Medical University of South Carolina. So they created what they call the South Carolina Telehealth Alliance, and with those state funds, we were able to put up a match for the USDA grant."
Schwarting said she is excited about the school-based telehealth program, which will connect 19 schools with providers from MUSC, Bamberg Family Practice and Barnwell-based Low Country Health Care System.
“MUSC has been doing a lot of telehealth across the state and (is) currently in about 47 schools. So they helped us put this project together, and we plan to use their model that they currently use,” she said.
She added, “Where I think our program is different and unique and really speaks to a rural community is we’ve pulled in the local providers. So MUSC will be providing care in the schools sort of as a backup to the primary care providers that are already here."
“For example, Dr. Danette McAlhaney over at Bamberg Family Practice will provide services in the schools in Bamberg County," Schwarting said. "That’s really neat because a lot of those students may already be her patients. And if some kids don’t already have a primary care provider, this is a way to link them to a primary care home.”
Schwarting hopes to include other Bamberg County providers in the program, which will begin in Bamberg County and Barnwell County’s Williston School District 29 in August.
“We will get all of the schools over three years, but they will be in the first round of implementation,” she said.
Meredith Tuck, who has been a nurse at Richard Carroll Elementary School in Bamberg District One since 2011, said she enjoys the program.
“It’s a great program. It’s been good,” said Tuck, adding that the initiative has improved children’s access to health care.
Telemedicine refers to the use of telecommunications technology to provide health care from a distance. The program will involve the use of telemedicine carts, which are mobile medical cars designed to give providers a mobile frame and storage system to carry equipment such as cameras and keyboards.
Specialized telehealth-enabled instruments, or peripherals, are used by a nurse according to the directions given by the provider in order to perform a physical exam remotely, for example. An electric stethoscope can be used to hear bowel, lung and heart sounds, along with a video otoscope for examining the ears.
Schwarting said the telehealth software creates superior video that helps make the program a success.
The telehealth cart includes coding software and a TV monitor that help facilitate the interaction between students in the nurse’s office and their remote medical provider.
“We downloaded some software to Dr. McAlhaney’s laptop so she can literally sit at her desk and see the child. The cart also has peripherals so that if a doctor wants to check the child’s heartbeat, the nurse can put the stethoscope on the heart and Dr. McAlhaney can actually hear it in her office,” Schwarting said. “That’s pretty cool.”
“Instead of kids having to miss a day of school or stay in school feeling bad because a parent can’t get off work, they’re able to be seen,” she said.
McAlhaney noted, “I wanted to be part of telehealth because I believe this is the way that medicine is evolving and I like to stay current on technology. I think telehealth will be a significant player in the next several years.”
“This is important in our area because it allows us to evaluate how sick a child is and decide if they need to go home, or could possibly stay at school. It will also possibly allow some chronic care to be done if a child has trouble getting to the doctor. We could potentially use this for education of children with chronic conditions,” she said.
For more information on the PCC and the school-based telehealth program, call the PCC at 803-245-2672.