Health program links students via teleconference


The telemedicine program will ease the burden on Greenville High School, which has just three counselors and one social worker for 1,200 students. Courtesy Greenville Public Schools

Spectrum Health is working with Greenville Public Schools on a pilot telemedicine program that gives high school students in rural areas better access to behavioral health therapy.

Starting this year, Greenville High School students can see a licensed master’s-level social worker who offers the counseling on-site via videoconference. Spectrum has leased space at the high school for the operation.

Based in Lakeview at Spectrum Health’s Lakeview Youth Clinic, the social worker provides behavior health appointments 7:30-11:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday, seeing up to five or six students per day. The program continues during breaks and holidays.

The program is meant for students with more clinical mental health needs but who do not have access to those services, said Amy Wierzbicki, director of student services for Greenville Public Schools. Greenville High School has three counselors and just one social worker for 1,200 students.

Spectrum said offering the on-site service is meant to fill that gap, particularly for students who have private insurance and, as a result, are often waiting a month or more before they can speak to a professional. The program also accepts Medicaid.

This school pilot program is the first of its kind offered by the Spectrum Health System. A need for the service was identified after a recent community health needs assessment, completed every three years by Spectrum Health. The assessment gathers comprehensive input from area health professionals and hundreds of community residents.

“The pressures today that teens have on them with social media and relationships are a little bit harder than they were, say 20, 30 years ago,” said Katie Thorsen, telemedicine specialist at Spectrum Health.

Thorsen said the service addresses issues teens often face.

“Kids that are having trouble with relationships with their parents, peer relationships, substance abuse, bullying, social media pressures, issues with friends — the whole gamut,” Thorsen said.

After the assessment brought the need to light, Greenville reached out to Spectrum about how to find a solution, and staff began working on implementing the program, Thorsen said.

Michael Leiter, Greenville High School principal, said he goes to national principal conferences where he often hears about the need for better mental health services throughout the country.

“They're just screaming for help,” Leiter said.

Other schools in rural areas already have expressed an interest in hosting the program.

“I think within the next month or two, we'll really see the success of the program and be able to determine where we're going to expand next,” Thorsen said. “But I think it's just going to be the beginning.”

Wierzbicki said Greenville staff will meet each month with Spectrum staff to provide feedback on the program as it is expanded to other schools.

While school-based telemedicine focused on behavioral health is a new path for Spectrum Health, more general telemedicine in schools is not.

Spectrum has contracts with many area school districts, serving as the virtual school nurse, addressing issues such as rashes and playground injuries, as well as working regularly with students who have chronic conditions like diabetes.

Spectrum Health has been using telemedicine for over four years to offer patients on-demand, 24/7, low-acuity primary care visits, as well as specialty visits.

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