University Health Services, the University of Michigan’s student health center, is offering sexual assault exams administered on-site by trained sexual assault nurse examiners rather than making students travel to the emergency room after an incident. The service is designed to improve students’ access to examinations and provide care in a more comfortable and convenient environment.
According to Susan Ernst, the chief of the UHS Women's Health Clinic, going to the emergency room after sexual assault can cause anxiety for a variety of reasons.
“We felt it was important to try to offer the SANE exams on the college campus really for the convenience of the students and to reduce the stress after sexual assault,” Ernst said. “Students might worry about trying to go over to the emergency department that they might get their insurance billed or that their parents might find out.”
UHS services are mostly free for students. Ernst added traveling to the emergency room can feel more intimidating than going to UHS — a smaller, quieter setting with which students may already be familiar.
According to the website of the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, the health service receives approximately 70,000 visits every year.
The SANE program was established in 2015 after the Association of American Universities published a survey exposing the prevalence of sexual assault on 27 campuses, including the University of Michigan. The report found 30 percent of undergraduate women had experienced non-consensual sexual contact during their time at the University, compared to 23 percent across all participating schools.
The University independently conducted a follow-up survey, which found 22 percent of undergraduate women had experienced non-consensual contact in the last year.
Ernst said the data were almost more worrying than the results of the AAU survey, because they revealed a high percentage of sexual assault over a shorter period of time.
The sexual assault statistics motivated student activists to reach out to University administration, which in response worked with UHS to set up a SANE program. Ernst said UHS had been considering the idea for a while, but the students who approached the administration with their concerns galvanized the movement.
Public Policy senior Daniel Greene, Central Student Government president, and CSG Vice President Isabel Baer, an LSA junior, wrote in a joint email interview student involvement plays a critical role in confronting sexual assault.
“Addressing sexual assault requires a campus-wide effort,” Greene and Baer wrote. “The fact that 1 in 5 females and 1 in 16 males are sexually assaulted during their undergraduate experience is unacceptable. Student advocates on this issue, including ourselves, are continuing to examine the campus culture surrounding sexual misconduct.”
Because there were already sexual assault nurse examiners working in the emergency center at the U-M hospital, the University did not need to hire new staff in order to make sexual assault exams available on campus. The trained nurses have specific on-call hours for sexual assault exams, so UHS asked the nurses to be available at both locations.
According to Ernst, the sexual assault nurse examiners generally agreed students would benefit from having the option of on campus exams.
“They don’t mind coming to campus to do those exams instead of seeing those same patients in the emergency department,” Ernst said. “They were really kind of happy to do it because the emergency department can be crowded and overwhelming and a little bit loud and a little chaotic and so they thought it might actually be better for the survivors to be in a quieter, smaller environment.”
The University presented its on campus SANE model at an American College Health Association May 30 meeting. Ernst said administrators from other universities were generally enthusiastic about the idea, and some are even working to establish similar programs on their campuses. Some schools, like the University of Texas, already offer exams through a student health service. Ernst thinks the feasibility of providing on campus exams depends on a school’s size – larger schools might have better access to necessary personnel and resources and they have more students to treat.
Looking forward, Ernst hopes more students will learn about the SANE services provided by UHS. Though the University advertised the program through a Snapchat “takeover” in 2015 and publicizes it online, Ernst said the number of patients coming in for exams has only picked up in the last six to 12 months. She also said though UHS has limited hours – unlike the emergency room – sexual assault survivors should know UHS will work hard to accommodate them.
“It’s been really hard to get the word out to students that this is available,” Ernst said. “We try to work with them to do whatever we can to get them services at UHS.”