By Lindsey Derrick/UGA Today
The Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership has invested in the Athens community through the Mobile/Athens Free Clinic since its founding in 2017.
Now, the Medical Partnership is looking to expand its reach through a new school-based health center at Clarke Middle School.
"The mobile clinic has helped increase access to health care for many CCSD students,” said Amy Roark, Clarke County School District’s director of nursing. “We are excited to launch this existing partnership to a new level of providing consistent, daily access to health and wellness services.”
School-based health centers are an innovative way to allow health care access to students, family and staff. Patients at the centers can receive a variety of health care services, from primary care to behavioral wellness, while remaining on school property.
With a successful center already established at Hilsman Middle School and staffed by the Athens Neighborhood Health Center, the school district turned its attention to the west side of Athens.
“CCSD's goal is to increase access to health and wellness services for our students and staff,” said Roark. “The Hilsman Health Center has served as a wonderful resource for students and staff on the east side, and we believe that opening a second clinic, more convenient to central and west-side schools, will further increase access for more students.”
This new center builds on an already robust collaboration between the Medical Partnership and the Athens community.
“The mobile clinic is a longstanding partner of CCSD,” said Roark. “Together, we have coordinated and implemented COVID testing events, COVID vaccine events, sports physicals, and attended to the medical needs of uninsured students.”
Through vaccine clinics, Medical Partnership faculty and students have vaccinated more than 1,650 school district students, staff, guardians and employees. They have also partnered with multiple agencies and organizations, including the Department of Public Health, the Athens-Clarke County government, ACC neighborhood leaders, Foothills Charter High School, Athens Community Council on Aging, Potter’s House, Columbia Brookside and Bethel Village. From March 2018 to December 2021, the mobile clinic conducted 900 patient visits at a value of $210,000.
Bringing the center to life
Following CCSD’s successful partnership with the mobile clinic, Roark reached out to Dr. Suzanne Lester, the mobile clinic’s director, to see if her team was interested in another opportunity.
“As our partnership with CCSD grew, the positive impacts we could have in the schools became very clear,” said Lester. “Our medical students have repeatedly stated how much they have enjoyed interacting with CCSD students, families and staff, so it seemed like a logical next step.”
Lester teamed up with Roark and others from UGA and Clarke County to secure a grant for the clinic—Drs. Lia Bruner, Tresa Chappell, Jean Chin, Carrie Kelly, and Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber from the Medical Partnership; Jason Cade from the UGA School of Law; professor Edward Delgado-Romero from UGA’s Mary Frances Early College of Education; Megan Ford from the ASPIRE Clinic at the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences; and Dr. Stephen Goggans with DPH all joined the effort.
The efforts paid off. In November 2021, the team was awarded over $94,000 to cover a nine-month pilot period for the center at Clarke Middle.
The next steps
The clinic will open in a temporary location this fall as the school begins construction on its permanent location, set to be complete in 2024.
During the pilot phase, the health center will serve the students, families and staff of both Clarke Middle School and Alps Road Elementary School. Services will include preventive health care and care of acute and chronic health conditions, mental health counseling and referrals to legal, social work and other support services, free of charge.
After the pilot concludes, it will transition to a free-to-sliding scale model to help support the costs of services/supplies and expansion of services, mirrored after the mobile clinic, that will be open to all of CCSD.
Medical services will be provided by clinician faculty as well as Medical Partnership faculty, students and volunteer physicians in partnership with CCSD nurses and the Northeast Health District 10 of the Georgia DPH.
The ASPIRE Clinic and La Clínica in LaK'ech, a bilingual clinic, will also provide collaborative support services through the center.
Supporting a learning environment
“Keeping students and staff healthy is our top priority,” said Lawrence Harris, CCSD’s chief of community engagements and strategic partnerships. “A school-based health clinic allows us to provide medical services on-site, reducing students missing instructional time. Additionally, this reduces the strain of other health care providers as we are able to divert some of the medical needs to be solved on-site rather than filling their medical offices and waiting rooms. This partnership also will hopefully decrease hesitancy in the future for students accessing medical care when they are adults, as there does exist a social and cultural aversion for some.”
Roark echoed that sentiment.
“Having these services available on our school campuses increases the amount of time that students spend in class learning and reduces the amount of time that parents and staff have to miss work,” she said. “We are grateful for our community partners who assist us on our path to increasing student success.”
Roark hopes the new center will make a positive impact on Clarke County students that is larger than just physical healthcare.
“We hope that this clinic will serve our students and staff in a variety of ways. Medical, counseling, legal, immunizations and other services will be available to CCSD students and staff through the partnership with the mobile clinic,” she said. “Health and education are closely intertwined and interdependent. As the former surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, once said, ‘You cannot educate a child who isn't healthy, and you cannot keep a child healthy who isn't educated.’”