From Muncie Star Press
MUNCIE, Ind. — If you’ve ever made a trip to the school nurse’s office, memories of ice packs, bandages or lying down on a stiff couch probably come to mind.
While those basic care remedies are still being provided, the way children receive their healthcare locally might begin to change, starting at school.
Muncie Community Schools and Meridian Health Services have partnered to change the way people think about the standard nurse’s office. Last August, the Meridian School Clinic opened at Southside Middle School.
While located inside of the school, the clinic is a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), just like Meridian’s other locations.
Lisa Suttle, Meridian’s regional vice president of clinical services, told The Star Press this means the clinic serves not only students, but also their teachers, parents and even community members.
Suttle said Meridian had been exploring the idea of FHCQ’s moving into schools in 2019, and discussions began with MCS. Simply looking for space, Meridian began exploring different locations with the school district. Central High School was at one time a suggestion, but it soon became clear that families of students attending Southside Middle School were in need of health services.
“Between the facilities that were available in the school, that space was available in the school, and the need in that area of town, it seemed to make a lot of sense,” said Andy Klotz, chief communications officer at MCS.
The school nurse’s station was transformed into the main clinic area, which includes five bays for health assessments, along with a separate suite for behavioral health. Since last summer, the clinic has provided a range of services, including primary, behavioral and dental care.
A safe, secure and parent-led process
Like any other Meridian location, Southside’s clinic offers a full range of services to students and community members. Because it’s a FQHC, Suttle said, much of the care is offered at a low cost, or even free, for many families.
For primary care, services include health and prevention screenings, pediatric care, illness visits, immunizations, sports physicals, first aid, dental screenings, nutrition management and chronic health condition management.
To address behavioral health, the clinic offers crisis interventions, various therapy sessions, suicide prevention, ADHD and autism diagnosis and treatment, psychiatric consultation, addiction prevention and services and psycho-social assessments.
“The beauty of it, too, is that you don’t only have to be at that school, at Southside, in order to take advantage of those services,” Klotz said. “If there was a child in another building that was exhibiting symptoms, and they wanted to go to the clinic there, then that would be fine.”
For students experiencing sudden illness or who are injured, the clinic offers easy access to Meridian providers. Suttle said no matter what the visit is for, parents are always involved in the process as their child receives care at school.
“When we see the child, there’s another (form of) consent, that we’re calling the parents and saying, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. Are you OK if we see the child, and have them see a nurse practitioner or provider?'” Suttle said. “Just making sure that they’re always involved in the process.”
Since the clinic is open to the general public, student safety has also been key for both MCS and Meridian. Appointments are required for the clinic, with no walk-ins allowed.
Though it’s located inside the school, Southside’s clinic has its own entrance from the outside, with a buzz-in system. While students will be able to walk-in through the school’s normal nurse’s station entrance, parents and community members must go through the separate entrance.
“They’re never walking in the school without one of our staff members with them directly,” Suttle said.
With almost 600 students attending Southside, Suttle said the former nurse’s office could see up to 75 students a day.
Despite opening the Southside school health center almost one year ago, both Suttle and Klotz agreed that the clinic hasn’t been used at full capacity due to COVID-19.
With thousands of students at MCS opting to go virtual last school year, many didn’t need to utilize the clinic, whether they were Southside students or not. COVID-19 also limited the clinic’s availability to the community at-large, since stricter precautions were put in place.
Toward the end of the school year and even now, however, Suttle said things were beginning to pick up.
“We’ve already had a couple of primary care appointments scheduled this last week, which is awesome,” Suttle said. “So we’re really excited about that.”
The benefits of a FQHC in school
Along with community members on Muncie’s south side now having easy access to primary, behavioral and dental healthcare, there are plenty of other benefits to having a health center located inside a school.
One of the greatest benefits, Klotz and Suttle said, is convenience. For many parents, receiving that phone call about a sick child at school can be difficult, as can the process afterward.
Typically, they might have to call off work, collect their child from school and drive to the doctor’s office. Now, Southside’s clinic can handle all of that on the spot, pending parent approval.
Klotz said the clinic can also help prevent unnecessary student absences, as children have direct access to quality care, right down the hallway.
“By being able to address a need that maybe a teacher observes, like if a kid’s coughing, or just doesn’t look right, whatever the case may be, they can get them immediate medical attention, perhaps get them feeling better by the end of the day; keeping them in school, rather than sending them out,” Klotz said.
It’s also a bonus for MCS, as Meridian provides training and information to teachers, such as CPR certification or fliers on suicide prevention.
The process of bringing in a Meridian clinic has been at no cost to the school district, with Meridian only asking for the appropriate space, Suttle said.
As of July 1, Meridian was also approved by the school board to completely take over nursing care at the school. During the meeting on June 22, MCS Director of Public Education and CEO Lee Ann Kwiatkowski noted that the change meant the school district wouldn’t have to contract as many nurses.
Instead, the district nurse who was stationed at Southside Middle School would be moved to another location, and Meridian would be supplying and paying the health center’s staff.
“That really helps us,” Kwiatkowski said during the board meeting. “It’s another great financial win for us as well.”
Fam Fest moving to Southside
While Meridian’s annual “Fam Fest” is typically held at the Suzanne Gresham Center, it will be moved to Southside Middle School in just a few days.
The event, slated for 3-7 p.m. Thursday July 15, will provide free back-to-school physicals, health screening and COVID-19 vaccines. Games, prizes and food and drinks will also be available.
The event will be held mostly outside, with physicals being offered inside the new clinic. All three types of COVID-19 vaccines will be offered; however, for children, only Pfizer has been approved for ages 12 and older.
So far, not many children and teenagers have received the vaccine locally, Suttle said. As of Monday, in Delaware County, only 1.8% of those fully vaccinated were ages 12-15, and 3.3% ages 16-19, according to the Indiana State Department of Health’s vaccine dashboard.
As families visit Fam Fest and the beginning of the school year draws near, Suttle hopes the new clinic can be a source of information and support for parents who are still cautious about the vaccine.
“I think it’s really scary for parents right now to think about that, getting the vaccine. But, we want to be available to answer any questions and provide information that we have, directly,” Suttle said. “It isn’t about us forcing (them) or anything like that. It’s really about educating and allowing parents and students to make an informed decision about what direction they want to go.”
Transforming the future of student care
As vaccines roll out and virus cases drop locally, officials are expecting the Southside clinic to be much busier this school year, in hopes that the clinic can now do what it was intended to do.
For Meridian, the success of Southside’s clinic could change the way students receive healthcare in the future. Already, Meridian is looking to open other such centers, and is in contact with schools across the state.
While it will always be at no cost to schools, Suttle said other districts don’t have to exactly replicate Muncie’s model, especially if they already have similar services in place.
“We’re working a lot with the schools, providing different opportunities. There’s not just a blanket of, ‘This is all we’ll do,'” Suttle said. “Some schools already have the behavioral health, so if we can help with the primary care or dental, then absolutely, we’re there to do it.”
For Muncie Community Schools, the clinic could also transform the way the district provides medical care for its students. While the clinic hasn’t been fully utilized due to the pandemic, Klotz said it has been well-received by families who have used it.
Along with Meridian’s clinic, the district also works with Open Door Health Services to bring students care in a mobile fashion. Southside’s clinic is open to all students, but in the future, he said the district may look to open other health centers.
“Even in the limited capacity that we saw in the first year, it’s already got us excited about how many more benefits there will be in the future, and how many other long illnesses we’ll be able to prevent because of onsite medical care,” Klotz said.
For more information, visit meridianhs.org/physical/schoolclinics.