CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Taylor is a West Virginia student with cystic fibrosis, chronic pancreatitis, and other health-care issues and needs. These needs require her to see specialists in Cleveland at the Cystic Fibrosis Center and pain management specialists in this state for treatment. Once a promising athlete when she was younger, she has had to face the severity and limitations of her condition and accept that there are some things that she will never be able to do.
Unfortunately, a number of West Virginia students share Taylor's situation, and their futures remain uncertain. They have severe health-care needs, and it becomes increasingly challenging to address these needs -- for the students, their families and their schools. It can be a real hardship for everyone.
Fortunately for Taylor, she grew up in a county where the middle/high school had a school-based health center, and it has made a world of difference. The provider, who has managed her care since she was an adolescent, coordinates the care among the specialists in Cleveland and Charleston. This provider is on school grounds, and she has worked for years with the school staff to educate them about Taylor's condition. Taylor's goal, her family's goal, and her school's goal was to keep her in school whenever possible.
They succeeded. Taylor is now in college, and she wants to major in pre-med. She still comes home to visit her school-based health center for checkups. Her mother has always said that she just wanted a normal life for her daughter, but Taylor continues to make her life extraordinary.
During the recently completed legislative session, we discussed a number of issues affecting West Virginia's children. We need to keep them fed, educated, safe and healthy. Above all, we need to make significant changes to ensure better opportunities and futures for them.
One important step that I recommend is that more schools partner with more health-care sponsors to establish school-based health centers in their communities. It's a very simple, common sense solution to a complex problem.
Schools: Designate space for a center. Provide in-kind support for the center, such as utilities and janitorial services.
Health sponsors: Provide staff, equipment and liability insurance to operate the center.
It really can be that simple. By locating a clinic on school grounds, we alleviate the greatest challenge to children utilizing health-care services, which is access to care. Since every school-based health center in our state provides services regardless of a family's ability to pay, we alleviate the financial burden. With a health center on campus, students don't have to leave school to see a provider, and their parents or guardians don't have to leave work to take them.
From ensuring that all students receive their immunizations and annual physicals, to treating bumps and bruises, to coordinating services for students like Taylor with severe health-care needs, school-based health centers have the potential to greatly increase the health of students and staff.
School-based health centers also have the potential to improve academic success. Poor academic outcomes and high dropout rates are major concerns for educators, policymakers, and parents alike, and poor health severely limits a child's motivation and ability to learn. Many centers provide behavioral health services, so problems can be assessed early. Parents are encouraged to play an active role in their children's health care, and so a relationship of inclusion and trust can help families and schools address complex health issues.
School-based health centers are a low-cost, effective model for delivering health care that encourages collaboration between public health and public education. Despite this, only 88 centers are currently operating in our state, serving 107 schools. With 730 schools, less than 15 percent of our students have access to a school-based health center.
Now is the time to work together to bring about positive change for the next generation of West Virginians, and we can start by encouraging our schools to open their doors to health care. Let's alleviate the impact of health disparities for all students -- even those like Taylor. She's a shining example of what a collaborative, community effort can do to brighten the future of its children.Ruf is president of the West Virginia School-Based Health Assembly and the chief executive officer of Belington Community Medical Services.