School nurses today do a lot more than bandage skinned knees. They administer vaccines and medications, help diabetic students monitor their blood sugar, and prepare teachers to handle a student's seizure or asthma attack, among many other things.
"Chronic disease management is what school nurses spend most of their time doing," says Carolyn Duff, president of the National Association of School Nurses. "We do care for students in emergencies, but we spend more time planning to avoid emergencies."
And though school nurses see many students regularly, they don't always have the most up-to-date information about the students' health. School nurses must get permission from parents to communicate with a child's doctor. Once the doctor gives them a care plan for the child, they generally rely on the doctor and/or parents for updates and changes.
"When things change, we don't always get told in a timely manner," says Nina Fekaris, a school nurse in the Beaverton, Ore., school district. "It works, but it takes a lot of coordination."
At the same time, school-based health care is unfamiliar territory to many medical professionals, who operate in a health care universe largely separate from school clinics and other community-based medical services.
But schools and health care systems are trying to bridge that gap. In these projects, some funded by the Affordable Care Act, school health professionals gain access to students' electronic health records, specialists and other health system resources. The initiatives are up and running or on the drawing board in Delaware, Florida and Oregon, among other locations.
In Delaware, "lots of nurses expressed that they had difficulty communicating with providers" at Nemours Health System, which serves children around the state, according to Claudia Kane, program manager of the Student Health Collaboration at Nemours.
In 2011, Nemours got together with the Delaware School Nurses Association and the state Department of Education to develop a program that, with parental approval, gives school nurses read-only access to the electronic health records of more than 1,500 students who have complex medical conditions or special needs. That includes conditions such as diabetes, asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, seizure disorders or gastrointestinal problems.
Beth Mattey, a school nurse in Wilmington, says that now that she has access to the Nemours system, she can check the recent lab test results of a student who has diabetes. "It's helpful for me to monitor his [blood sugar levels] and work with him to make sure he's in better control," says Mattey, who is president-elect of the National Association of School Nurses.
When a student put a staple through his finger, Mattey was able to check to make sure he went to the doctor and got treatment. "Checking with him directly involves calling him out of class," she says.
Eventually, school nurses will be able to put information into the Nemours electronic records system as well, says Kane.
In the meantime, Nemours doctors, some of whom were initially skeptical about allowing school nurses access to health system medical records, are warming up to the arrangement. Kane says it encourages communication between physicians and school nurses, and eases the burden of routine tasks because Nemours doctors no longer have to fax over care plans or instructions to the school nurse every few months for students who are part of the program.
The Nemours Student Health Collaboration project is operating in all Delaware public school districts as well as half of charter schools and about one-third of private schools. Kane says Nemours plans to extend the program to school-based health centers next.