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Q&A: Mary Kay Irwin, director of school health services at Nationwide Children's Hospital

Apr 17, 2018

Mary Kay Irwin is the director of school health services at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Irwin spoke with Interact for Health about Nationwide Children's Hospital's work to connect children to health care by creating access point at schools.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about Nationwide Children's Hospital's goals regarding school-based health centers?

Mary Kay Irwin: We have 13 school-based health centers, all within Franklin County, Ohio. The desire is to provide a unique access point to health care for children who are not otherwise receiving it and to provide comprehensive care in partnership with schools.

Before we open up a school-based health center, we look at the data to suggest where there may be a need, and then we do needs-based assessment, which includes lots of conversations with school staff. We really try to think about what each school needs, so it's not one-size-fits all.

Interact for Health: Could you share a brief story that illustrates the effect of your work in the community?

Irwin: Yes, one of our school-based health clinics saw a student who was sleeping in class on a regular basis. One of the comorbidities associated with autism is sleep disorder. The clinic staff discovered that the student was on the autism spectrum, but had not been previously diagnosed. With a very mild sleep aid, the student was able to get rest in the evening and quickly started making significant gains in the classroom. The family was excited, and the school was excited. It was a really nice collaboration with the school psychologist and the school nurse

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned from your work?

Irwin: The first lesson is that it's helpful to talk with other people who've done the work before you. That's been tremendously helpful for us. There's a lot of little things to consider when launching a school-based health center, such as space requirements and details that you would want on a consent form. When you can talk with other people who are doing the work, it's a huge time saver.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments of your work are you most proud of?

Irwin: I am proud that the school-based health centers have been providing care for children and adolescents that have gone without care for extended periods of time. Providing much needed care and reconnecting these patients to a source of medical care has been our most significant accomplishment to date.

Interact for Health: What about you work excites you or is most fulfilling?

Irwin: The most fulfilling part of the work is hearing the stories from my practitioners in which their delivery of care has changed an outcome for a child. Our health centers have identified children who have health conditions they didn't know they had. We've seen children who had been diagnosed with chronic conditions, but had never received any follow-up care before they saw us.

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