Caring for Student Health

By Naomi Dillon

It makes perfect sense: If you don’t feel well, you won’t perform well. Professional athletes know this. Medical professionals know this. Moms and dads know this. And in an increasing number of public schools, district officials know it, too.

And many are doing something about it, in the form of more than 2,000 school-based health centers across the nation.

Known also by their acronym (SBHCs), these clinics take many shapes and forms, sometimes occupying a wing in a school building, a mobile unit on school grounds, or an old shuttered campus retrofitted as a modern medical facility. Most provide preventative and wellness care, although more are adding mental health, dental, and eye care services to their list of offerings.

“Lots of times, people like to describe them as a doctor’s office, but often they are more comprehensive than that,” says Linda Juszczak, executive director of the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care.

Numerous studies have shown that SBHCs can improve student health while lowering hospitalizations and Medicaid expenses. Several have noted sharp reductions in absenteeism and tardiness rates in schools where health centers exist. At least one study has determined that students who frequented the clinics for mental health services had higher grade point averages than those who didn’t use the centers.

Meanwhile, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Community Health estimated that a nationwide school-based clinic program would cost $4.5 billion but save nearly $25 billion in medical and opportunity costs for missed work and premature death from asthma. That same year, as part of President Obama’s health care reform bill, Congress appropriated $200 million for school-based health programs.

“It’s a triumph of common sense,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the Denver Post last summer. “Schools should be the heart of the neighborhood. You’re putting a critical, critical resource right there at the school building.”

Juszczak says the federal government’s support has sent the message “that the clinics are here to stay, that they are filling a role that’s appreciated and essential in the communities that need them.”

“That’s changed the attitude that people have of these programs,” she says.

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