Note: This article was updated in January 2020.
We all want our children to be as healthy as possible. When they were young, we took them for their regular check-ups, and we often continue to monitor and care for them when they are sick. When our child becomes a college student, one of the many things that they will need to learn is to manage is their own healthcare
Fortunately, we do not send our college students off to a healthcare vacuum. Virtually every college or university offers some form of healthcare for its students.
College healthcare services have expanded from the earlier days of basic infirmary care for sick or injured students to a broader definition of health and wellness. Most current college health services cover the treatment, management and prevention of health conditions and emergencies by providing onsite medical and counseling services and general wellness programming. The college healthcare field has shown significant growth in mission, services and facilities, with the greatest growth in recent years being in the area of mental health services.
Services provided by college healthcare centers vary by school, but many of the services are covered by the cost of tuition. There may be additional fees for some services. Basic college clinics are generally open daily and staffed by a combination of doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses and counselors. They provide services ranging from medical diagnoses, injections (such as flu shots, tetanus, allergy medication), contraceptives, writing prescriptions, laboratory tests, nutrition consults, mental health counseling, and general health education programming. Students often need to make an appointment – either by phone or online. (Be sure to make sure your student knows how to make an appointment with a health professional.)
In addition to providing medical and emergency services, most college healthcare centers now also include in their mission the education of students, staff, and other campus constituencies, training in strategies for health, safety, prevention, and emergency planning and response. Outreach is a growing part of this mission. Typical topics covered by programming might include tobacco, alcohol, drugs, nutrition, sleep, exercise, suicide prevention, stress, sexual assault prevention, and general healthy lifestyle and wellness programming.
Healthcare centers are prepared to deal with emergencies such as outbreaks of flu or meningitis on campus. For example, during the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009, many campuses instituted comprehensive quarantine and treatment protocols. Most campuses have extensive plans for communicating with, containing, and treating students in the event of a case of meningitis on campus.
College health centers may help to create emergency plans for students with serious or life-threatening health issues. Such plans might include educating the community and planning a protocol for treatment and/or emergency transportation.
Health centers also maintain health records for students. Students should be aware that health records are considered confidential and are covered by either FERPA (Federal Rights and Privacy Act) or by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Both laws provide privacy and security of protected health information, however there is some overlap in the laws. Students who are concerned should ask the health center at their school which information is covered by which law. Parents should understand, however, that both laws protect the student’s right to the privacy of their information. Except in extreme cases of emergency, parents will not necessarily be notified of student health visits, diagnoses or services.
Students on their parents’ health insurance should know, however, that insurance companies may notify of services provided.
College health is a growing area of professional medical care. The American College Health Association, the professional organization for this field, reported 3,000 individual members and 1,100 institutional memberships in 2020. This organization provides support, education, and best practices for professionals in the field.
The increased growth and development of college healthcare services does not come without a cost. Providing the extensive services needed today requires larger staffs with increased specialties, larger facilities, more equipment, improved technology, and more staff training. Most colleges include in their costs a healthcare fee which only begins to cover these increased expenses.
The staff at the health care center of your student’s school is educated in student developmental issues. They have chosen to work with the student population and also to work with the larger community to help others understand the health issues and challenges of college students. Although it may still be difficult to send your student off to college knowing they will probably get sick at some point, parents may find it reassuring to know that students will be in good professional hands.