Obesity, asthma, food allergies, behavioral disorders, vision deficiencies and prescription-medication abuse are just some of the chronic health problems that children face today, making the need for school nurses in America stronger than ever.
There has been a huge shift in the health needs of the nations children in the last generation, says Amy Garcia, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. Today, about 17% of kids are obese or overweight, 5% suffer from asthma and 5% have been diagnosed with a food allergy. Overall, roughly 16% of students have health needs that require medication or treatment during the day. As Garcia says, school district budget constraints, coupled with allocating resources on the schools curriculum, help explain why not all schools employ nurses.
We do not believe there is a shortage of nurses who will work in schools, but we do believe there is a shortage of funded positions, Garcia says. Many parents believe that because there was a school nurse when they were going to school, that there are still skilled nurses.
Some states that already employ school nurses are expanding beyond those services. Ranking 12th on the list, New Jersey began a pilot program nearly two years ago that places skilled nurse practitioners in schools with nurses to help manage the patient load. The Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey has placed nurse practitioners in the states schools for about 10 years, and the association currently has seven nurse practitioners in five districts with about 2,400 children, according to Mary Ann Christopher, the groups president and chief executive officer. In October 2006, state Sen. Joseph Vitale
(D-Woodbridge) approached the group about providing similar services in a pilot program in the Woodbridge school district.
The school nurses in New Jersey are certified and a very important part of the delivery of healthcare, Vitale says. They are the first and last line of defense for kids, but they are limited by statute of what they can do. Nurse practitioners can diagnose and write prescriptions.
To facilitate the program, the association provided nurse practitionersat no cost to the school districtsin six Woodbridge schools that were identified as having the most medically underserved populations. According to Vitale, the states Department of Children and Families gave the districts a grant for a program, and the state allowed the nurse practitioners to bill Medicaid on a fee-for-service basis. He says the program has helped lower absenteeism in the schools, and he would like to expand it to other districts.
One of the great values of school nurse practitioners is they provide access at a point where the children are already comfortable, Christopher says.