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Health in schools: An essential resource

By Jeff Hayward, PA-C, Op-Ed published in the Spokesman Review

If I told you there was a resource that can increase student attendance, improve educational outcomes and create lifelong health benefits, would you believe me? It exists, and it’s called a school-based health center. These centers are extensions of neighborhood health clinics, but they are located right in schools. As a provider at CHAS Health’s clinic in John R. Rogers High School, I have seen firsthand how life-changing this type of care is for students and their families. We provide accessible physical and mental health services where students spend most of their time – at school. Students across the state deserve this low-barrier care; that’s why I’m advocating for investments to strengthen and expand school-based health centers this legislative session.

The impacts of convenient care on students’ lives are tremendous. Recently, a student came to see me about frequent health episodes. After meeting with her and her mother, I learned she has an untreated condition for which she’d been unable to see a medical provider. After seeing me at the school-based clinic, we’ve come up with a treatment plan that we hope will make her life a lot easier. It’s powerful knowing that this student and many others leave our clinic with the knowledge and ability to best care for themselves.

School-based health centers provide essential services at over 65 schools across the state. More than half are operated by community health centers, such as CHAS Health. Being in the same building as the students I serve allows me to be a trusted adult in their lives. By building valuable relationships with the students I meet, I’m also able to cultivate a positive view of medical providers. This has myriad practical benefits as they continue with life; instilling healthy habits when they’re young means they will more likely seek preventive care as they get older, increasing the likelihood that any medical condition will be caught before it progresses.

Washington’s school-based health centers provide students with accessible care while keeping them in the classroom, meeting kids where they are. Instead of parents needing to take hours out of their workday to pick up their child at school, drive to and sit through an appointment, return their child back to school, and then head back to work, a student can simply walk to their on-campus appointment and miss the least amount of classroom time possible. School-based health centers keep kids in class – it’s as simple as that.

At Rogers, the care team provides preventive, acute and on-going care, as well as behavioral health services. On-site behavioral health services are a key piece of addressing the youth mental health crisis, and that is evident by the sheer demand at our clinic. We see many students with depression and suicidal ideation and support them with counseling and outside referrals. Our students are seeking out care because it is accessible and trusted; they talk to each other about the help they’re able to receive right at school. Our goal is to eliminate as many barriers to care as possible, including making it available to every student regardless of whether they have insurance or the ability to pay.

A concern that school-based health centers often hear is parents fearing they’ll be cut out of their child’s care. In reality, parents still have the same oversight of their child’s care and appreciate us being here. In many cases, I’ve built relationships with the parents of my students. We have an open channel of communication to talk about something that is important to both parties involved– the health of their child. We operate in accordance with Washington state law, which protects the confidentiality of some visits, but for services like vaccinations and general primary care, parents or guardians must be involved and provide consent for their child to be seen.

It is hard to overstate the benefits of school-based health centers. Healthy students are engaged students. Engaged students are students who graduate and go on to have fulfilling lives. With additional investments in school-based health centers this legislative session, students all over Washington state could be able to access care in the ways students at Rogers do. That should be something we can all stand behind.

Born and raised in Spokane Valley, Jeff Hayward, PA-C, is the lead school-based health provider with CHAS Health and is based at John R. Rogers High School.

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