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Students Texting Their Doctors

December 07, 2005

Students Texting Their Doctors As Major Western Bay School Service Lifts Off

Western Bay secondary students are using text messaging to make appointments with their health co-ordinators and doctors as hundreds each week start using a new school health scheme.

The Student Health Service has been running in the region for six months. Health co-ordinators now in place at seven local high schools. Another joins the programme in the new year.

Funded by the Western Bay of Plenty Primary Health Organisation (PHO), the Student Health Service's main aim is to provide affordable, accessible and appropriate health care to secondary school students. And it is now tackling adolescent risk behaviours that lead to both sexual and general health problems, such as obesity, muscular and skeletal problems, smoking, drug and alcohol, and suicide.

PHO general manager Roger Taylor says the health co-ordinators are seeing increasing numbers of students using the service and a greater acceptance of their role.

"Increasing numbers of students are seeing their health co-ordinator each week, an average of 25 students at each school.

"Students at most schools can now text to make an appointment, which works well because they feel it's confidential."

Mount Maunganui College health co-ordinator Sue O'Kell says texting is a great way to keep in touch with the students.

"The kids know they can knock on my door or slip a note under it, but often they text for an appointment or to ask a question because they feel it's more private.

"I text them with messages such as 'your results are back, come and see me' and I text as many seniors as possible inviting them back for their meningococcal vaccinations. I asked them to pass it on to all their mates and it seemed to work well."

O'Kell believes a huge part of the health co-ordinator's role is to build trust and respect within the student body.

"I've had cases where students have come to see me for something minor that turns out to be more important. Initially they are just sussing me out.

"The students, parents and teachers have been really receptive of the programme and we've had cases where we've made a difference in student's health."

Tauranga Boys College health co-ordinator Vicki Keenan agrees a pivotal part of her role is to build students' trust.

"Documentation has it that boys don't self-refer, but I've certainly seen a significant number of boys coming to me with their issues and concerns especially as they see me around the school more and come to accept my role.

"I'm giving them the message that it's important to be responsible for their own positive health choices and to come to see me before anything gets to crisis stage.

"I think for all students – but particularly boys – the idea of wrapping health services around them is definitely the way to go, because so often there are social barriers that stop families from accessing health services for their children," Keenan says.

Katikati College principal Peter Leggat says his school recognised the need for a health co-ordinator five years ago and provided a Board of Trustees-funded nurse until the PHO service was offered.

"Having the service back up by the PHO is great and it also funds a doctor to be in the school for two hours a week, which has further strengthened what we were running."

Leggatt says some Katikati College students, like many others in small town, don't feel comfortable accessing health care, particularly in small towns.

"Usually they only know their family GP and are worried about going to the local health centre and running into a neighbour, or perhaps mum knows the receptionist well. Students often don't feel like they can truly confidentially see a doctor or nurse. Ideally we would like students to share health issues and concerns with their parents, but realistically it's not always going to happen. By having health care available at school students feel they have access to a confidential service.

"At the end of the day a healthy student can learn – the health co-ordinator and visiting doctor have really added to the support we have in place for our kids."

Doctor Tony Farrell, of Mount Maunganui Medical Centre, believes the Student Health Service will eventually result in health gains, both financially and socially.

He says by reducing the risk of sexual health problems, offering informed choices about teenage alcohol, cigarette and drug use, and general wellbeing, students can be more aware of the sorts of issues they can face later in life – all of which can come at a cost to the health system.

"For example, we know anyone smoking at 14 is at risk of addictive problems later in life, so we can use education and motivational techniques around that," Dr Farrell says.

"We have to remember we are dealing with the pre-contemplators of the world - teenagers who just don't want to change or think of consequences because everything is so exciting – but we are trying to raise some doubt in their minds that there are risks and perhaps you can make some healthy choices around the things they do."

Dr Farrell says there are many illnesses that if picked up early enough in teenagers, can allow them to lead a healthier life.

"Anxiety disorders can be picked up early before a student gets older and becomes chronically depressed, early signs of some chronic diseases such as diabetes can be recognised, and musculo-skeletal problems can be treated with physiotherapy and exercise which can stop lifetimes of chronic pain, and of course there are the potential risks of early alcohol and drug disorders to be managed.

Roger Taylor says it's encouraging to see the Service running so effectively, even though the programme is still in its development stages.

"The PHO fully endorses the need to provide health co-ordinators and doctors within the school environment, not only to help reduce adolescent risk behaviours but also to begin the process of engaging with those students that tend not to access health care.

"Next year the health co-ordinators will look more widely at what determines good health and what steps can be taken in schools to endorse that, including running projects such as nutrition and exercise programmes, introducing healthier foods into the school canteen and anti-violence campaigns.

"This service can only grow to play a stronger, more vital role within our secondary schools."


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