School-Based Health Centers Continue to Play a Vital Role

School-Based Health Centers Continue to Play a Vital Role in Student Wellbeing and Academic Achievement
School-based health centers (SBHCs) have been an integral part of the United States education system for decades, providing convenient on-campus medical care and support services to millions of students each year. Located within or adjacent to K-12 schools, SBHCs are staffed by healthcare professionals like nurses, nurse practitioners, and physicians who work collaboratively with school administrators and teachers to address both physical and mental health needs that can interfere with learning. While research on their impact has been ongoing since the 1990s, more recent studies continue to demonstrate the positive contributions of SBHCs to student health, attendance, and academic performance.
A key benefit of SBHCs is the easy accessibility they provide to screening, diagnosis, and treatment of common childhood illnesses and injuries. According to the School-Based Health Alliance, common conditions managed at SBHCs include acute illnesses, sports injuries, asthma, diabetes, obesity, dental issues, and mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. By having medical resources on-site, SBHCs help minimize time missed from school due to visits to off-campus doctors or emergency rooms. This was evidenced in a 2016 evaluation of SBHC programs in New York that found students at schools with health centers had lower hospitalization rates than their peers without on-campus care (Bersamin et al., 2016).
Vision, hearing, and oral health screenings are also routinely provided through SBHCs to identify issues early before they negatively impact learning. A Northeastern city study from 2000 found SBHC mental health screenings and referrals significantly reduced absenteeism among predominantly Hispanic students (Rienzo, Button, & Wald, 2000). Untreated conditions in these areas like dental pain, poor vision, or undiagnosed learning disabilities can cause distraction and lower academic performance if not addressed. SBHCs help get students the specialized services or corrective measures they need to focus in class.
In addition to physical care, SBHCs play an important role in student mental wellness. Counselors at health centers provide social-emotional support, crisis intervention, and treatment for issues such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse – all of which are increasingly prevalent among today’s youth and known to interfere with concentration and motivation if left unaddressed. A Seattle study from 2000 found 9th grade students with access to SBHC counseling attended school more regularly and earned higher grades than peers without these services (Rienzo, Button, & Wald, 2000).
SBHCs also promote healthy lifestyle education and behavior change counseling. With childhood obesity and related conditions on the rise, health centers implement programs encouraging nutrition, physical activity, and weight management. They provide counseling for issues like risky sexual behavior and substance use prevention according to each student’s developmental needs. By addressing the root causes of distractedness and other barriers to learning, SBHCs help students develop lifelong healthy habits and make informed choices impacting both their physical and academic wellbeing.
While funding and support for SBHCs has varied over the years depending on political priorities, their positive contributions to student health outcomes and educational success have been well-established. More recent studies continue validating earlier results. For example, a 2016 evaluation of SBHC programs found students had higher graduation rates, better attendance, and fewer disciplinary issues than peers without on-campus medical support (Bersamin et al., 2016). As health challenges facing children grow in complexity, the need for SBHCs remains critical. By keeping students healthy and in school, these centers play an invaluable role in communities and student achievement. With collaborative support from partners, SBHCs can further expand their impact.
Bersamin, M., Garbers, S., Gold, M. A., Heitel, J., Martin, K., Fisher, D. A., & Santelli, J. (2016). Measuring success: Evaluation designs and approaches to assessing the impact of school-based health centers. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58(1), 3-10.
Rienzo, Barbara A., James W. Button, and Kenneth D. Wald. “Politics and the Success of School‐Based Health Centers.” Journal of School Health 70.8 (2000): 331-337.

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