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WVU researchers focus on school-based healthcare in Appalachia

Hindered by access to high-quality healthcare, West Virginia children demonstrate some of the worst health outcomes in the nation.  

More than 25 percent of West Virginia children live in poverty. Many rural communities do not have nearby OB-GYN providers, let alone hospitals. Moreover, West Virginia has the highest rate of opioid drug overdoses in the nation.

A valuable resource for children is available in the one place they find themselves daily: their local schools. School-based health centers provide services ranging from preventative and immediate healthcare to behavioral and dental care.

An interdisciplinary team of West Virginia University researchers is investigating how children’s health and education outcomes can be improved through these school-based health centers. 

Simon Haeder
Simon Haeder
To address these challenges, Simon Haeder, an assistant professor of political science, and Sara Anderson, an assistant professor of child development and family studies, have been selected to participate in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders Program. 

Designed for teams of two researchers and one community leader, the IRL program supports engaged research crafted and conducted by innovative teams that explores a problem, applies a solution in real time and makes an immediate positive impact in their local communities. The three-year program provides participants with annual support of up to $25,000 and a one-time research grant of up to $125,000 per team.

“We are so excited to leverage the resources of the IRL program to improve the lives of the children of West Virginia,” said WVU Provost Joyce McConnell. “The research that Drs. Haeder and Anderson will be conducting is rooted in a sense of urgency and in a commitment to the power of our local communities. Their project is consistent with the goals of West Virginia Forward and will truly make a difference in the state.”

Anderson and Haeder will collaborate with Kelli Caseman, director of child development and chair of the Kids’ Health Partnership for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care. Over the next three years, their team will investigate and assess how school-based health centers address healthcare needs in rural West Virginia. 

While school-based health centers in West Virginia have been providing care for over 18 years to approximately 150 sites across the state, little is known about their successes and challenges in rural, isolated communities.  

“It is hard for underserved populations to access services. But most children will end up at a school, and that’s a place where parents don’t have to worry about taking them somewhere or taking time off,” Haeder said. “In places that are really underserved and where it is challenging to access services, school-based health centers might be one of those interventions that might really help them because we know all about the challenges to getting those services. We know there are limited resources, and we want to make it better.”

Sara Anderson
Sara Anderson

Haeder, Anderson and Caseman will create an inventory of all school-based health centers in West Virginia. Once those sites are identified, they will interview and conduct focus groups of key stakeholders, including principals, nurses, counselors, teachers and community members, to understand how the centers operate as well as their scope, reach and accessibility. 

“School-based health centers can be anything from a nurse who provides vaccines and maybe some other preventive care to more comprehensive centers that do everything from physicals to behavioral health,” Anderson said. “There’s frankly not a good census of what is out there and what the different forms take, so the first phase will be understanding what they are in a systematic way.”  

They also plan to conduct case studies and surveys to learn how characteristics of the school-based health centers relate to health and academic outcomes.

“West Virginia helped initiate the school-based health care movement over 20 years ago. It was a founding member of the National School-Based Health Alliance, and it has more centers per capita than any other state in the country,” Caseman said. “I'm excited to work with RWJF and high-caliber researchers like Sara and Simon to explore the current models of care in our state, efficacy of services and opportunities to expand access to comprehensive healthcare for all of West Virginia's students.”

By highlighting school-based health in rural West Virginia and sharing the results widely, the researchers anticipate changing the culture of health in a state that typically struggles with health- and education-related outcomes.

“We look forward to building strong and lasting community ties, providing communities members with better access to relevant tools and information and improving connections to local, state and national policymakers,” Haeder said. "We hope learning from and working with our communities and other organizations that are actively engaged in these issues will improve the well-being of West Virginia's children."