What’s a pulse oximeter? A way to keep kids safer

From Anita Blanchard, Associate Professor, Psychology and Organization Science at UNC Charlotte:

As a parent of 5-year-old twins with asthma—one of whom requires frequent oxygen monitoring when she is sick—school can be particularly stressful during the cold, flu, and allergy season. In the fall of 2014, parents around the country were warned about a new, scary virus called Enterovirus D68 that could cause sharp declines in oxygen level that require hospitalization, particularly for children with asthma.

However, we worry less than other parents because we have a solution at our school.

We have provided our school nurse with a pulse oximeter. This $50 piece of equipment provides a quick assessment of how good (or bad) our children’s oxygen level is during days they have a cough, but are well enough to attend school.

While thermometers are more well-known, pulse oximeters are newly available for home – and school – use. They are very easy to read and can help a nurse quickly and easily detect whether the child is healthy enough to go back to class, to call a parent, or to call 911.

In 2012 the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) recommended that school nurses have pulse oximeters and provides a 12-minute podcast to help train nurses on how to use them.

How useful, really, would they be in an average school setting? The American Lung Association reports that 7.1 million children under 18 have asthma and in 2011, 4.1 children experienced an acute asthma attack. The U.S. Department of Health and Human services reports that asthma is one of the leading causes of school absences.

Beyond asthma, the 2012 NASN article states that pulse oximeters are useful for assessing students with chronic cardiac conditions and blood disorders as well as emergency situations like severe cuts and choking.

So while most children do not have life-threatening issues at school, for a variety of reasons, they could. And a pulse oximeter could be one tool to prevent the worst outcome from occurring.

The ease in using pulse oximeters make them even more appealing. The nursing shortage continues to be a problem in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and all of North Carolina. CMS medical staff is the best judge of who should monitor pulse oximeters, and whether that could be a nurse or a parent volunteer. But the nurses and doctors with whom we interact trust our ability to read and interpret our pulse oximeter. Even our 5 year old daughter knows when she has a “good” number or a “bad” number.

And what about the cost? Providing a $50 diagnostic tool to every school in the district costs $8,200.

CMS officials should provide this inexpensive but important health device to all of our schools before the start of the next school year. A pulse oximeter is as easy to read and less invasive than a thermometer. It is inexpensive. And it can save lives.