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ECU Mobile Clinic Fights Rural Health Gap, School Suspensions, Inequality

Source: North Carolina Health News

Whenever a child starts school in Duplin County, a 30-day countdown starts for the student to receive a physical health assessment under NC law. Of North Carolina’s 100 counties Duplin is the ninth largest, but only has four pediatricians to cover 820 square miles. 

There’s a massive gap in health and educational access, and Eastern Carolina University is trying to drive a bus through it. Over the past three years, ECU medical students have provided free physicals for hundreds of school children. It’s an extension of a public school telehealth program that converted a university bus to a mobile clinic in 2020 to bring care to K-12 schools in Duplin, Jones, and Sampson counties.

If a child can’t be seen by a doctor, they risk short-term suspension from school in addition to essential medical care. In 2022, the NC Rural Health Association reported that one in every 10 North Carolinians are uninsured and rural areas like Duplin are 40% more likely to not have insurance. The healthcare obstacles to students and families have only continued to grow as rural hospitals continue to decline, with 138 closing in NC since 2010.

“All children deserve the right to education and should not have to forfeit this right based on reasons beyond their control, such as not having a school health assessment,” said Lauren Nuriddin, a third-year M.D. candidate at ECU, speaking to NC Health News and adding that she and her classmates “know the negative impact of suspension on school-aged children, and we are committed to doing something about it.”

According to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the 2021-2022 volume of short-term suspensions rose 26% to 16.5 suspensions per 100 students, compared to 13.8 per 100 students pre-pandemic (2017-2018). NCDPI does not provide data on the cause of the suspensions, but Nuriddin and ECU’s mobile clinic seeks to remove access to healthcare as a contributor. According to a presentation by Nuridden, the goal is to reduce the suspension rate by 50%.

ECU’s mobile medical students have helped over 300 schoolchildren avoid suspension since the mobile health assessment program began. According to a 2022 study by the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, students were “less likely to earn a high school or college degree” after being suspended. Like other disparities in public health and education, an analysis of national data suggests that suspensions are “meted out disproportionately to Black students, Native American students, and students with disabilities,” according to the same 2022 study. 

In addressing disparities in the health and education of other students, Nuriddin has simultaneously closed gaps in her medical education saying “Gaining this direct experience with children in their schools was invaluable and inspired me to see the impact I can make as a future physician beyond the clinic walls.”


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