Pioneering ECU telemedicine program brings health care to rural schools

East Carolina University, the Duplin County School District and health professionals in Duplin County collectively launched an initiative in 2016 in hopes of removing some of the barriers to health care that children in rural areas typically face. At that time, the goal was to connect students and staff in just three of Duplin County’s 14 schools with quality behavioral health, nutrition and acute medical care services through ECU’s Healthier Lives at School and Beyond School-Based Telemedicine Program – an initiative funded by a $1.2 million grant through the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

“Being that we’re from a rural area in the coastal plains of North Carolina, we have limited resources for (these) services. Most of our students have to travel for about an hour on either side of our county to receive behavioral health services,” said Sue Ellen Cottle, lead school nurse for Duplin County Schools. These barriers – as well as low income, lack of insurance and limited transportation – previously led to issues with student absenteeism, parents missing work and, even worse, the children not receiving the health care they need.

“I think everybody in education and health care recognizes that poorer families face barriers to care – there’s more morbidity, more mortality and poorer outcomes,” said Dr. Mary Gaylord, a pediatrician at Goshen Medical Center in Wallace. “But when you work with poor kids on a regular basis, you see how those barriers play out.”

Three years after the launch of the school-based telemedicine program, however, Duplin County Schools officials say it has been such an incredible asset to staff, students and families that it has been expanded to all of the district’s schools.

“The benefits to us are immeasurable,” said Dr. Ben Thigpen, the district’s assistant superintendent for federal programs, student support and athletics.  “It has provided things for our students that we wouldn’t have had. And we know, as educators, for kids who get good health care and are healthy, there are going to be academic benefits down the road.”

While ECU has been a leader in telemedicine for about 20 years, the Healthier Lives at School and Beyond program is the first school-based telemedicine program of its kind in the region, according to the program’s coordinator Jill Jennings, of ECU’s Department of Family Medicine.

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Originally published June 7, 2019.