What Exactly is a School-Based Health Center?

Entering my role as a health promoter for Heartland Health Centers, I knew I’d be serving at a high school and elementary school addressing student health compliance, teaching classes on various health topics, leading 1:1 nutrition counseling sessions, facilitating the school health club, and promoting the health clinic and services offered. What I didn’t totally understand was the concept of a school-based health center operated by an outside organization, inside of a Chicago public high school.

In my first few days at the school-based health centers, I was amazed to learn about the vast services offered to the students for free, and was shocked to learn that the school nurse does not treat students; she mainly deals with paperwork, rotates amongst other schools, and is only at each school about 1.5 days a week. So how does this all work? How do students receive health services?

Any student can visit their school-based health center for physical exams, dental services, vaccinations, acute illnesses, therapy sessions, nutrition counseling, and reproductive health services for free! If a student visits for mental health or reproductive health services, it is totally confidential and parents/guardians do not need to give their consent. All a student has to do is walk down the hallway to receive great medical care, and if certain medications are needed, like oral contraceptives and certain antibiotics, they can be picked up right at the school health center.

The clinic is an incredible resource for all students because so many of them are uninsured or underinsured and lack a primary care physician. All students can visit the clinic regardless of insurance or ability to pay, and can list the clinic as their primary care physician. The establishment of the school-based health center in a disadvantaged community eliminates many barriers to health for these students, such as transportation and cost barriers, and removes any concerns about confidentiality and parents being an obstacle to students accessing the health services they truly need.

Sometimes, students, teachers, and school administration don’t understand that we aren’t a nurse’s office and they don’t understand how advantageous it is to have a free health center in their school available to all students. Part of my role is to increase the utilization of health services at the schools I serve in, which I do by plugging the clinic and services offered into every health class I teach, outreaching students who are noncompliant with school physicals and immunizations, tabling at school events, creating fun school bulletin boards with health messages, and by leading fun health-related activities in the lunchroom promoting the clinic.

Serving in school-based health centers means collaborating with professionals from both the mental and physical health fields, which is important since so many factors contribute to our overall health. As a health promoter, one of my roles is to lead nutrition counseling sessions for students who are overweight or obese, have unhealthy eating habits, high blood pressure, prediabetes, etc. Many of these students are also referred to the clinic’s therapist because there are other problems affecting their eating behaviors, health, and wellbeing such as depression, anxiety, body image issues, or family issues. As a team, the health center works with patients to provide them with the physical and mental health services, as well as the health education needed to lead a healthy life.

This blog post was written by NHC Chicago 2016-17 member Fabiana Simone.

Fabiana is a Health Promoter at Heartland Health Center - Roosevelt and Hibbard.