When most people think of northcentral Arkansas, they typically think of the breathtaking scenery and small town-life that it has to offer its residents. While thoughts of rolling hills, gentle streams, and quaint towns come to mind, the presence of high-tech healthcare does not – but that is changing in one small Arkansas community.
Jasper is situated approximately an hour and a half north of Russellville along Arkansas Highway 7. While the town is small, the technology being used to treat students at Jasper Middle School is not. The Jasper School District is one of four school districts in the state that is participating in the STAR Program. STAR, which stands for School Telemedicine in Arkansas, is a grant between UAMS, the Arkansas Department of Education and the University of Central Arkansas. The grant focuses on three components of health and well-being: behavioral health, healthy lifestyle and teledentistry. The overall goal of this grant is to increase access to healthcare services through the use of telemedicine technology – ultimately saving patients from lengthy and often expensive trips that also require the student to miss school.
The teledentistry component of the grant was introduced to the districts at the beginning of the school year and since then has successfully been utilized in the Jasper School-Based Health Center. The Jasper School District is comprised of three separate campuses – Oark, Kingston and Jasper with miles of narrow, winding highway separating each of the campuses. Prior to the use of teledentistry technology, students at the Oark and Kingston campuses were bussed to the Jasper School-Based Health Center to be seen by a dental provider. On the days that a provider was not present at the health center, students were required to make arrangements to be seen by a provider in a different county.
Dr. Scott Zimmerebner with Boston Mountain has been the local dentist in the school district’s school-based health center for the past year. Dr. Z, as he is known to his patients, works in the school-based health center two days per week to provide care to students and local residents in the community. Teledentistry is helping to close the three-day coverage gap that exists when Dr. Z is not present on campus.
“This program allows Dr. Z to triage patients that come into the clinic while he’s not here. That way, he can plan his schedule accordingly or instruct the patient where to go to receive the best treatment,” said Melissa Henderson, Jasper School-Based Health Center Coordinator.
While telemedicine is not new to Arkansas, teledentistry is. Dr. Z is the first provider in Arkansas school-based health centers to implement the technology into his practice.
“While it has taken a couple of months to work out how to work the oral cameras into the workflow at the clinic, our hope is to keep from transporting kids from our remote campuses to the main clinic unnecessarily,” said Henderson.
Reducing travel for basic services is one of the goals of the STAR grant. In the past year, the grant saved an estimated 20,424 miles of travel for patients that were receiving care via telemedicine at the four districts where the program is currently up and running.
“I believe telemedicine, including teledentistry, will continue to grow and play an important role in the future of healthcare. The technology we use on a daily basis, such as the intraoral camera, is constantly changing and improving. As this technology advances, it will undoubtedly create more opportunities for teledentistry to help reach patients with limited access to care,” says Scott Zimmerebner, DDS.
While the program is still in its infancy, the goal is to be able to provide triage services to patients while Dr. Zimmerebner is working at his other clinics.
Henderson says, “We feel that this is a great asset to our area, Dr. Z is the only dentist in the whole county and when he’s not here, we are left with little options other than traveling to Harrison or Fayetteville. We had a potential oral cancer patient in the clinic and Dr. Z was able to take high-resolution images of the area and send them to a specialist for review. That patient would have had to travel 86 miles one way just for an initial consult.”
Boston Mountain Rural Health is the operator of the clinic and has embraced telehealth for other disciplines as well. Since the beginning of the school year, there have been several community patients seen via telemedicine by providers located at the main clinic in Marshall for behavioral health consults.
“I’m very excited to work with the team at UAMS and the STAR program on introducing teledentistry to the Jasper School-Based Health Center. I believe this program will allow us to provide more efficient dental care to our patients, especially in situations where dental treatment is urgent. Being able to visualize a patient’s problem from miles away will help improve our ability to diagnose and treat the issue sooner, while also avoiding unnecessary trips to and from the clinic,” says Dr. Zimmerebner.