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One of the state's largest community health centers is kicking off a school-based telehealth program in Calhoun and Bamberg counties to increase health care access for children in rural and underserved areas.

Family Health Centers Inc. in Orangeburg has partnered with Bamberg School District 2 and Calhoun County Public Schools to provide telehealth services in the following schools: Denmark-Olar Elementary School, Denmark-Olar Middle School, Denmark-Olar High School, Sandy Run K-8 School, St. Matthews K-8 School and Calhoun County High School.

FHC will also provide telehealth services to the Orangeburg-Calhoun-Allendale-Bamberg Community Action Agency Inc. as part of a partnership with it.

FHC Chief Executive Officer Leon Brunson said the newly formed Orangeburg County School District will also be eyed for inclusion in the program.

"We're waiting on a new superintendent to get his feet wet, and we will approach them," he said.

"Family Health Centers is one of those organizations that can partner with you and make a tremendous difference in the quality of health care in the state. Telemedicine is just one avenue. ... We want to serve each child according to national standards, making sure they receive quality health care. This is just another method of accessing care," Brunson said.

Brunson was among school, health and community officials who converged upon the New Vision Centre in Orangeburg for a program kickoff luncheon on Monday afternoon.

FHC has partnered with Bamberg-based Palmetto Care Connections Inc. on the project. Palmetto Care Connections is a nonprofit telehealth network that is working to improve health care access in rural, underserved communities statewide.

Kathy Rhoad, director of program development with Palmetto Care Connections, said, “Palmetto Care Connections is very excited to be working with the Family Health Centers to bring school-based telehealth to local areas."

Brunson said the Medical University of South Carolina is providing equipment through the Palmetto Care Connections group.

“MUSC has a mission that they must put in telemedicine in the rural areas of the state. So, yes, they buy all the equipment for the project, and that's where it comes from. The state of South Carolina funds this every year for MUSC," Brunson said.

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 carts designed to give providers a mobile frame and storage system to carry equipment such as cameras and keyboards.

Specialized telehealth-enabled instruments 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.

"The feedback from the providers or the nurse practitioners or the doctors is that because of the quality of the digital equipment and the cameras and that kind of thing, that they really get as a picture of the actual patient as if the patient was right beside them. That is just phenomenal," Rhoad said.

Matt Hiatt, technology director with Palmetto Care Connections, said the telemedicine carts will also include a concussion unit which can identify concussions using electronic cognitive assessment systems, determining in real time if a player, for example, needs to be removed from play because of head trauma.

Shanel Dunkin of FHC's Adult Medicine Unit will serve as the telehealth provider for the program.

Rhoad said, "The school district champion is most often the school nurse. If you have an enthusiastic school nurse, that really makes all the difference in the world.”

School leaders are also important, including principals, superintendents and school boards.

"We already have the staff training module, and we also have a certified telepresenter that we can put together for you, and we'll be doing the (nurse) training for Calhoun, Bamberg and OCAB in August," Rhoad said.

She noted that mental health and chronic disease management are among the services which can be assessed through the telehealth program.

Brunson said a concerted effort will be made to get parents to sign their children up for the telemedicine program.

"My outreach worker will come into your school and assist the parent to fill that form out. We will make it easy. Not only that, right now I'm offering free book bags to patients that come, parents that fill out that form, just turn it back in without any visit," he said. The book bag will be filled with supplies.

"I'm going to keep incentives out there in front of the parents because the parents are the driving force of this. We want to sit down and talk about how to make this better. Those kids are our responsibility. ... It takes all of us to make it happen," Brunson said.

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Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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