For many of us in healthcare IT, our primary arenas of work tend to fall within hospitals and health systems, ambulatory organizations, payers, and the vendor space. There are plenty of subdomains within each of those areas, such as tribal health, community health centers, post-acute care hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and more. I had the chance this week to dig into a segment of healthcare IT that I haven’t done much work in – a university health center. This is the time of year that millions of students are making the leap from college to the university environment, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how digital health is playing out in that space.
At the university in question, students submit their health histories and physicals online via a secure patient portal, including immunization records. Given the volume of international students, the system has to be configured to accept different types of immunizations and offer enough patient-facing help features so that the incoming students understand what they are documenting and can fill out the online forms accurately. Copies of examinations and records can be submitted online, either through scans from the student or via secure email from transferring physicians. I was pleasantly surprised that there were no fax machines to be found at the facility.
Once the initial records come in, a member of the health center staff reviews them with a couple of areas of focus. Immunizations are first, because without them or a notarized waiver document, students can’t attend. Many of the students receive diphtheria and tetanus boosters prior to attending, along with meningitis vaccinations. When I began to think of the size of the entering class, plus the number of transfer students, times the number of doses administered, multiplied further by the cost of the vaccines, it was a large number representing a significant healthcare investment. If the immunizations don’t meet the requirements, a nurse reaches out directly to the student to discuss the issue, eliminating any back-and-forth related to misunderstanding of the questions or errors in documentation. Students are directed to resources to obtain needed vaccines, rather than simply being told they need to get them.
If the student’s documentation passes the immunization requirement, the file is routed electronically to a different part of the clinical team for a general review. Histories are screened for chronic conditions which may require care from the student health team beyond the routine conditions that people typically assume are cared for at a health center. I was impressed by the level of review given to some of the files – given some of the “medical miracles” we’ve seen over the last several decades, students are coming to college with fairly complex histories and specific medical needs. There is a special team to perform second-level review on these files, flagging students with conditions such as congenital heart disease (often following surgical intervention), transplants, cystic fibrosis, and more. Often the students have included their own supporting information that they wanted added to the file, whether it is a transfer of care summary from their pediatrician or a recent referral or consultation letter from a treating physician. It’s a testament to these doctors “back home” as well as to the families of these students that the necessary information is being supplied up front so that the best outcomes can be possible.
Since the patients (students) in this situation are voluntarily attending the institution, and many thousands of dollars are being spent, nearly everyone involved has a vested interest in making sure they stay healthy. Students are made aware of all the services the student health center offers – psychological counseling, preventive services, treatment for sexually transmitted infections, interventions for chemical dependency and eating disorders, screening for depression and intimate partner violence, and more. It reminded me of what many of my community health center clients are trying to do, but on a less-fragmented and better-funded platform. Of course, students are able to find a physician in the community if they choose, but with a team like this, who would want to?
The student health center is more than a walk-in clinic. It staffs a couple of beds where students can stay overnight for observation or delivery of IV fluids for fairly straightforward illness such as gastroenteritis or medications for conditions like acute migraine headaches. The physicians have referral arrangements with a group of hospitalists, which is happy to accept student patients when they have more complicated conditions like influenza, pneumonia, or the occasional appendicitis. They run a women’s health clinic and an orthopedic clinic. Given the presence of an athletic program with a notable football component, I was pleased to see they have a concussion clinic to not only follow up on symptoms and management, but to work with the patients’ academic advisors and professors to address any ongoing cognitive issues.
All of this is being managed in a state-of-the-art electronic health record, hooked up to the state HIE and also to Carequality. They’re routinely sending data to students’ home physicians of record and are electronically managing consents to make sure they can talk to parents when appropriate or to other members of the students’ support systems. The clinic is all about interoperability and coordination because they can be and want to be, not because they have to be. Since they’re not billing Medicare, Medicaid, or commercial payers, they’re not subject to a lot of the regulations and box-checking that the rest of us are. It made me think I was stepping back in time to pre-2009, back when health systems were embracing technology because it was the right thing to do, not because they were being forced to. There was a level of enthusiasm back then and in this practice now that I don’t typically see.
I’ll be working with these folks for a while and am excited about it, not only for the opportunity to see a well-oiled machine and not have to fix very much, but also because of the providers. They are happy and it seems legitimate. Maybe it’s because their systems are optimized, maybe it’s because they don’t have to bill insurance, and maybe it’s because most of their patients are young and healthy with fairly self-limited conditions. Regardless, it’s a good way to experience a different part of the healthcare space and see what pearls of wisdom I can find as I continue on my travels. I’d be interested to hear from student health informaticists – their challenges and opportunities. It’s certainly a bit of a different space for me, but I like it.
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