Online Tool Aims to Improve Children’s Health

Published January 1, 2006

When insurance companies look at America’s children, they see the future and tremble.

But a new technology, being used successfully in several U.S. cities, is working to improve health assessment and aid the health care industry by providing an online tool to schools nationwide.

Assessing Knowledge

The Healthy Classrooms Initiative (HCI), developed by Winnetka, Illinois-based software company Clerisys Technologies LLC, is a program designed to help elementary school students and their teachers and parents assess the accuracy of their health knowledge and take steps to improve it.

When it is used in a classroom setting, students log into the system anonymously, using just a subscriber number, to take a Personal Health Inventory (PHI)–an age-appropriate questionnaire that can focus on one of several subject areas, including nutrition, growth and development, alcohol and other drugs, tobacco, and physical activity. Teachers can see how well their class did on each question, then target classroom instruction to address deficiencies.

According to the American Council on Exercise, approximately 15 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 19 are currently overweight–an average that has tripled since the early 1970s. What that means for health insurers is an entire generation of people who will be at greater risk of serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes and who, in a few years, will begin costing health insurers massive amounts of money.

Promising Impact

The HCI has the potential to make a dramatic impact on students’ health and insurance companies’ claims, said Clerisys Chief Executive Officer Dave Anderson. But unless the health care industry helps sponsor the program in schools, nothing will happen, he said.

“Schools can’t buy a program like this,” Anderson said. “So somebody has to sponsor it, and it’s got to be a health provider or a foundation or an insurance company or somebody who wants to reach into the community. The world of health insurance and the world of health care providers need to partner with the schools to improve the delivery of health services, instruction, and prevention to the schools.

“If you ask a middle-schooler what the best source of protein is–apples, red beans, water, or lettuce–they’re going to say apples or water,” Anderson said. “Or if you ask about the healthiest fat, in Chicago they say fried food and in Wisconsin they say cheese. They think they’re healthy.

“If you just look at where the bulk of the [insurance] claims come from, it’s all lower socioeconomic groups who are having heart disease–and it’s all preventable,” Anderson said.

Targeting Problems

Obesity and its related diseases aren’t the only problems, however. According to the National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, which works with abused and neglected children, at least 50 percent of the time, the reasons kids give for dropping out of school are health-related. The government spends $41 billion a year managing addiction, violence, and behavioral problems at school, the association notes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the risk behaviors that can lead to HIV infection develop as early as sixth grade.

HCI’s questionnaires are based on the CDC’s Youth Risk Surveillance Survey, said Anderson, and can be adapted for any school’s curriculum or health program or any state or federal requirements. Although it targets elementary schools–the best place to teach good habits–middle and senior high schools use it as well, he adds. Moreover, the feedback is immediate–students can print out their results to show their parents. And when that happens, the HCI becomes a community outreach tool, Anderson said.

“When schools decide they want to go healthy, they use our program as a pre-activity assessment, and then again as a post-activity assessment,” Anderson explained. “We’re finding that mothers and grandmothers will come in after school to learn how to make fried foods in olive oil, for instance. We want 30 million kids to use it every year, and more than once, because the technology is a self-management tool. There are things you can measure, and you can improve your knowledge and reduce your own risk behaviors.”

Making Changes

Several cities nationwide have already discovered how useful the HCI can be–particularly in states where health isn’t being taught sequentially in the classroom anymore.

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has been using the program in several schools for the past six years as a pilot program, said Sheryl Gotts, who helped design it before retiring as the MPS health and curriculum support specialist three years ago.

“There are some things that have surprised me,” Gotts said. “Like, kids don’t seem to understand addictions, by the way they answer the questions. So we can try to do educational activities to make better choices. The kids are really interested in doing it, because it’s all about them. Since the feedback is immediate, the teacher has the results right away, so they can go back to the classroom and talk about it.”

In Kansas City, Missouri, where the fourth- and fifth-grade classes at McCoy Elementary School took the PHI in December 2004, a new health club for students has been set up based on the results.

Partnering with Schools

Anderson envisions health insurers using the HCI the same way auto insurers use good-driver discounts–when young people take steps to protect and improve their health, they qualify for lower rates.

“It’s a start,” Anderson said. “You can deliver curriculum support directly to the schools or the districts themselves. This move toward a personal responsibility approach is a massive shift in the economy. We could save billions of dollars a year by doing this.”

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News, a monthly publication of The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

For more information about the Healthy Classrooms initiative, go to

See also, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance USA 2003,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC, May 2004,