In January, Dr. Noreen Womack headed back to school. Way back. To elementary school.
The wildly popular St. Luke’s pediatrician is spending her Fridays checking on bruises and bumps, taking temperatures and monitoring fevers among dozens of needy Nampa children.
Her presence at Central and Snake River elementary schools is the centerpiece of a St. Luke’s Children’s pilot program, launched near the beginning of the year to provide school-aged children with easy, accessible health care in their everyday environment. It’s one of the many ways St. Luke’s is looking to make care accessible and convenient to more area residents – and early results show just how needed and effective St. Luke’s Children’s School-Based Health Clinic has the potential to be.
Dr. Womack, an English/Spanish bilingual pediatrician who recently retired from Treasure Valley Pediatrics, visits Central Elementary School on Friday mornings and Snake River Elementary School in the afternoon. Dr. Womack arrives with bags full of books that she gives to students as they visit. The books, which often have a health-related message, encourage the students to read and build trust between Dr. Womack and her patients.
Between the cuts and the scrapes, she also sees a real need.
The Nampa School District has many students with significant barriers to primary care. In a community with a high number of vulnerable families, there also is often fear of seeking medical care until it is critically necessary, increasing medical issues and the cost of treatment. The partnership between St. Luke’s and the district improves front-door access to basic care and Idaho’s only children’s hospital – and has only begun to scratch the surface of the need.
“A lot of these kids haven’t been seen by a provider and don’t have a primary care provider,” Dr. Womack said. “Our clinic offers the opportunity to increase access for at-risk kids.”
The clinic has provided care for young patients who need urgent care, well visits, behavioral consults and follow-up on chronic medical issues. In the short time the program has existed, numerous students, including 21 recorded patients, have benefited from the drop-in option, thereby avoiding potentially necessary visits to the emergency room and associated absences from school.
“The biggest thing I have done with this program is head off unnecessary referrals to the ER, dermatologist or ENT,” Dr. Womack said, referring to ear, nose and throat care. “It has also given me the opportunity to catch other things along the way.”
In one instance, Dr. Womack had a student visit with a fever. During that visit, Dr. Womack noted the child’s high body mass index and was able to begin working with the student toward a healthier weight during regular visits to the school, without the hassle of scheduling and billing the student’s family for multiple visits.
“The access to these students is at school,” she said. “Because it is a school-based clinic, we can see students when they need to be seen and we can plan follow-ups without having to make appointments.”
Dr. Womack’s first patient – a young student with a fever whose uninsured mother was hesitant to take her daughter to see a doctor – illustrates the need and the importance of the approach.
“Had her condition worsened, the girl would have likely been taken to the emergency department, a more expensive option, and possibly exposing the young girl and her family to unneeded stresses,” said Brenden Warwick, the practice program manager who led the project to implement the St. Luke’s Children’s School-Based Health Clinic.
St. Luke’s Children’s is looking to move to a mobile clinic model, expanding the program and opening the door for additional providers. A mobile unit would include two exam rooms and be able to provide more services, such as flu vaccine immunization clinics and school physicals, in addition to day-to-day clinic availability. Progression to an expanded program seems logical, Warwick said, given the response over the past two months.
“There is so much need.”
Michelle Railsback works in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke's.