Viewpoint: Not down with the sickness


Published November 28, 2012

Being told that you have nothing more than a common cold after waiting in line at University Health Services for three hours to treat an eight-week-long illness would make any student a bit disgruntled. This happened to my best friend this fall. Her sickness for several months and eventual retreat home to receive proper medical attention at her local family physician drew my attention to the pressing administrative issues in our University Health System. Though we’re entitled to “free”— read: included in our tuition charges — health care as University students, it seems we’re paying an untold price. The health program has turned into a bureaucracy where nurses can give students a “code” to bypass the system while others wait helplessly with a fever for hours, only to be told they cannot see a doctor for a week. With one of the best medical programs in the world, the University should be doing more for its students and faculty.

It all started when my friend first got sick in September. Her illness progressed to night sweats, fevers and a horrible cough, so she ventured her first trip to UHS. She waited for several hours and was eventually prescribed antibiotics, but they didn’t help. As the weather got colder, she got sicker and sicker until it got so bad she could barely walk without feeling her head pound and couldn’t sleep at night without waking up in a cold, feverish sweat.

Naturally, it was hard to maintain her schoolwork and demanding schedule, so she returned to UHS. Upon arrival, they immediately sent her to wait for two hours. Then, despite the fact that her record showed a return visit for worsening symptoms, she was sent to a desk to schedule an appointment with a doctor. They scheduled her for a few days later. When she went in for her appointment, the doctors looked at her chart, looked in her eyes, nose and throat, and handed her a pamphlet on the common cold.

As a last resort to stop the deterioration of her health, my friend helplessly traveled home to see her own doctor, knowing she couldn’t just have a common cold. Her home practitioner diagnosed her with a severe sinus infection. She was prescribed the proper medications before she returned to campus. Though she was grateful to be on the mend, she was behind on her work as a result of the hours spent waiting in UHS and the subsequent trip home. This anecdote exemplifies our University’s failing health system.

With the new triage system enacted in this fall, students who walk in seeking medical care first have to wait to be scheduled for an appointment based on the severity of their illness. There are virtually no more walk-ins welcome. While in theory, the scheduling makes sense and does help separate those who need less-urgent STI tests from those who are bed-ridden with severe illnesses, it’s not working. Students who are in desperate need for medical attention are not receiving help quickly enough. It seems that the system determining the severity of the illness and the subsequent urgency for care, is at fault.

It’s not enough to look at a student and say, “You don’t have a fever this moment and you’re not violently throwing up, so come back in a week for your appointment,” as opposed to another student with a skin infection (like another with whom I’ve spoken) who gets fast-tracked to a doctor without much wait time. Since the skin infection was deemed “highly contagious,” the student got immediate care with a special “code” given via phone to bypass the scheduling portion and she moved straight to waiting for a doctor.

I don’t believe the doctors, secretaries or nurses are the ones at fault in UHS. Rather, it’s the bureaucratic system. The fact that UHS is understaffed only complicates matters, making wait times too long and creating the necessity for a triage system. The triage system, in turn, is unfair to those with medical problems who are qualitatively not deemed “immediate,” or “contagious” though the student has been suffering for weeks or may need immediate help. An inaccurate diagnosis is more likely when the staff feels pressured, overworked and stressed. The point of having free health care at the University is to help students get better more quickly so they can return to schoolwork. The new UHS program isn’t fulfilling this need. The triage system needs to be modified to help our students get better faster and make sure our peers and friends aren’t sick for an entire term.

Maura Levine is an LSA sophomore.