Miller School and Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Bring Telehealth to Miami-Dade Schools

May 5, 2011

Late Tuesday afternoon, when Anne Burdick, M.D., M.P.H, examined the right foot of a kindergartener with a history of eczema, she could clearly see the girl’s skin was dry and leathery from constant scratching.

While the exam was nothing out of the ordinary for the professor of dermatology, the video-conferencing mode by which Burdick conducted it was – as it ushered in a new era of convenient, cost-reducing, health-promoting telehealth in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Burdick, associate dean for telehealth and clinical outreach, was in the school clinic at North Miami Beach Senior High, and the five-year-old girl was more than a mile away at Greynolds Park Elementary. The two were connected by a high-definition video conferencing system and were viewing each other via two wide-screen monitors.

“The images were very clear – diagnosis quality,” said Burdick. “It was as good as seeing it in person.”

And in many ways, even better. The Telehealth Project for Students unveiled Tuesday by its partners, the UM Office of Community Health Affairs and the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation School Health Initiative, will assure continuity of care and reduced costs associated with absences and travel by enabling 8,000 school children in six north Miami-Dade schools to almost instantly connect to Joycelyn J. Lawrence, M.D., medical director of the school health initiative, for consultations when they visit their school clinics with a tummy ache, a sore throat or for a chronic illness.

“I love the telemedicine concept,” Lawrence, assistant professor of family medicine, said. “It makes it so much easier and we get so much more done without having to wait for someone to travel from place to place.”

With a grant from the Verizon Foundation awarded to the Miller School’s telehealth program, Lawrence also will, when necessary, be able to connect the children to a dermatologist, pulmonologist or other Miller School specialist, expanding access to health care for a population that is often underserved and uninsured.

“We see telehealth as a way of providing health services where they are needed when they’re needed,” said Scott Simmons, director of telehealth. “This project will have a dramatic impact not only on children’s health in the school, but also their classroom attendance because their parents or guardians won’t have to take them from one place to another.”

And now, thanks to an evening clinic for adults that just debuted at North Miami Beach High, neither will the parents or guardians of children in nearby area schools have to go elsewhere, or go without, when they need to see a doctor. In addition to unveiling the telehealth project, Arthur Fournier, M.D., associate dean for community health affairs who spearheaded school-based clinics with the Macdonald Foundation a decade ago, announced that the Office of Community Health Affairs and the foundation are partnering to operate a primary care clinic for adults two nights a week at the high school.

For now, the adult clinic is open by appointment Monday and Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who called the telehealth project a “milestone” in the school district’s mission to focus on the total child, expressed the hope that all Miami-Dade students, and their parents, would one day have access to such cutting-edge care.

“It’s not the technology that impresses me,” Carvalho said. “It’s the intention behind the technology and the use of it and how, with so much ease, you bridge the gap between those who have ready access to health care and those who don’t.”

Indeed, as Fournier noted, such a powerful tool for extending primary care services couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

“This is no small issue because there is going to be a crisis in primary care,” he said. “We are not graduating people who are going into family medicine or general medicine anymore so empowering nurse practitioners so they have the resources of a physician is crucial.”