BAMBERG - A normally cheerful 4-year-old isn’t so happy when recess time comes. She’s not interested in playing with her friends. Her bright, brown eyes, usually so full of life, are dull, and she’s listless.
The teacher sends her to the school nurse, who takes her temperature, finds she has a fever and calls the doctor for an online consultation.
In a relatively short time, the child has been diagnosed with a case of infected ears, the parents are notified and a prescription called in to the drug store.
Children in both Bamberg School Districts 1 and 2, whose parents have signed a form giving permission, can quickly get medical help through a partnership with Palmetto Care Connections. The nonprofit organization promotes the use of telehealth technology to give better access to healthcare in the state.
Dr. Dannette McAlhaney, who owns the Bamberg Family Practice, is the health care provider for the system.
McAlhaney said the nurse takes the vital signs and if she feels the child needs to see the doctor, she calls in and connects the patient through a healthcare cart. It’s equipped with a stethoscope, an otoscope and hundreds of other attachments.
“I can hear the heart beat … the lung sounds,” McAlhaney said. “I can look in their ears; I can do everything I can do in my office with the exception that I cannot touch you.”
After she finishes the visit, she calls the parent, gives them an update of what she’s found and bills the insurance provider.
Bamberg’s partnership with Palmetto Care Connections has been in operation for several years, but the barrier is getting the ball rolling, McAlhaney said.
“We’ve done a few visits, and they worked very well. It’s just a matter of how you fit it into everybody’s schedule,” she said.
But PCC has a much broader application than simply working with the schools. It’s been in operation since 2010 and is presenting a whole new concept of health care to the community as well, Chief Executive Officer Kathy Schwarting said.
“Our mission is to increase access to care for rural, underserved communities,” Schwarting said.
Eventually, you may be able to get your primary care physician and any healthcare consult that you need in an outpatient setting, she noted.
“That is our goal for Bamberg,” Schwarting said. “It is also to make sure that every provider in Bamberg has access to telehealth.”
For example, McAlhaney’s practice is doing a lot of telepsychiatry in the office, where the patient can connect with specialists on a television monitor. She sets them up with a specialist at Medical University of South Carolina. After the visit, the doctor will let her know what medication to prescribe for the patient, McAlhaney said.
Area alcohol and drug abuse centers are also very interested in providing counseling services to schools and primary centers and the workplace, Schwarting said.
Many of the larger insurance providers, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, are paying for these services just like they would in the practitioners' offices, she said.
Dr. Rick Foster, vice president of the South Carolina Hospital Association, chairman of the Alliance for South Carolina and member of the PCC Board of Directors, reported that funding through the state legislature is giving access to a broad range of specialties that will bring the services out to the people, especially in rural areas.
People are getting these services without having to drive all the way to Charleston, he said. Some people may not have a chance to get to the doctor. With telehealth, medical services are going out to them, and that’s the way it should be, Foster said.
Bamberg County Councilman Trent Kinard calls Palmetto Health Connections a blessing to the community.
“Who would have thought 20 to 30 years ago you’d be able to stick a stethoscope ... in the ear and be able to see it a million miles away,” Kinard said.
“To have this kind of service is amazing to me.”