I'm not one of the experts you would expect to be writing about how a Pennsylvania telemedicine law would help improve school safety.

I'm not a physician, mental health professional, teacher, or IT expert. I don't even have kids, and, according to my husband, I'm not a great listener.

But I have talked to (and, yes, listened to) all those professionals. I came away really believing that telemental health — mental health screening and counseling delivered securely and confidentially via tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices — is an idea whose time has come.

Here's why:

  1. America's growing mental health crisis is affecting children as well as adults –– and our society's ability to address mental health, or to consider it an integral part of overall health, is underwhelming.
  2. Finding ways to help kids struggling with mental health issues is part of fostering a safe, healthy, respectful school environment conducive to learning.
  3. Telemental health counseling is an efficient and effective way to help children struggling with behavioral health issues.

Telemental health is working in Texas schools.

According to mHealthIntelligence, 34,000 students in 11 Texas school districts have used Texas Tech University's Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral program.

As a result of the program's telemedicine visits, 10 percent of students have received counseling. About 300 have been referred for psychiatric care. In addition, 25 students were taken out of school because they showed "heightened risk of suicidal or homicidal actions."

Imagine if Pennsylvania could provide help and counseling for school children before a tragedy happens.

We screen for physical health before entering school. Why do mental health and physical health remain mutually exclusive?

Locally, a Pennsylvania school district is expanding its telemedicine pilot. Their next focus is telemental health.

Together, the Norristown Area School District and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia piloted the use of telemedicine to support the work of school nurses in three of the district's schools.

Grant funding and about 30 of the hospital's doctors, who volunteered to contribute their clinical services via telemedicine, got the pilot off the ground. A Norristown district school nurse, teacher, and student show the pilot's benefits in this short, two-minute video.

With little public policy support, they made the pilot work. During the 2018-2019 school year, telemedicine services will be expanded to all 12 schools in the Norristown Area School District.

Hospital and school leaders are now turning their discussions to the possibility of establishing a telemental health pilot –– behavioral health support using telemedicine technology, as explained in this short video.

Their shared vision is a safer, healthier school environment — emotionally as well as physically. These leaders believe that using telemental health to reach children who are emotionally fragile and may be at risk can be an important resource in efforts to improve young lives and prevent school violence.

To help spread telemedicine to more schools, a Pennsylvania telemedicine law is a crucial first step. Here's why.

Fortunately, state lawmakers are already working on a law that would provide some common ground rules to help spread the use of telemedicine in Pennsylvania.

Several months ago, the Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 780 to:

  • Define the key components of telemedicine.
  • Set licensing requirements to make sure that patients and consumers are cared for by the appropriate professionals.
  • Require health insurers to pay for care delivered via telemedicine if they pay for that same care when provided in person in a health care setting.

Now it's up to the House to pass Senate Bill 780. Adopting a law that provides consumer protections and greater clarity about telemedicine will pave the way for more opportunities to expand its use in schools.

Stephanie Watkins is the vice president of state legislative advocacy at The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.