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When The Student Health Center Lets You Down

When we head off for college, we have to say goodbye to the doctors we’ve known and loved (maybe?) our whole lives: whether it’s your pediatrician, your dentist, your eye doctor, or your gyno, chances are you’ve gotten to know him or her and you’re not exactly psyched at the idea of some stranger checking out your private parts next time you get sick. You do, however, assume that those strangers will be available, and that they’ll help. What I mean to say is, we go to college and take for granted that our student health centers will be there for us when we need them to be. Sometimes, that’s true. Unfortunately, it’s not always the case.

Things that can go wrong:

1. It’s impossible to get an appointment.

Don’t panic, and definitely don’t give up. The NYU Health Center encourages students to make appointments online, but sometimes when those are all filled up and you call in, there are still available spots. Showing up in person gives you the benefit of hearing if there are any random openings due to cancellations. If it’s an emergency, your health center is likely to make sure you get an appointment that day. Also, many health centers will offer phone services—helpful in figuring out what to eat if you have the stomach flu (BRATS diet!) and don’t feel like you can make it to the center without barfing on your fellow students.

2. You feel like you’ve been misdiagnosed.

This is tricky, because obviously the doctor does not feel as though they have misdiagnosed you. There are a few ways to handle this. I like to call up my doctors at home, just to check in with them. It’s hard to long-distance-diagnose, but at least I feel like I’m not crazy and if it sounds serious, they can tell me to seek out more help. You can also book another appointment with a different doctor at the health center, and ask for a second opinion. Don’t feel bad doing that! You have the right to feel healthy and well-taken care of. If you live in a town where it’s feasible and you have insurance outside of your college health care plan, try to find another doctor around town and go in there for a second opinion. Dr. Patti Nissenbaum recommended minute clinics for things like sore throats or other not so serious ailments. She also pointed out that as long as you’re on your parents’ insurance (as opposed to a school-based one), you do have access to emergency rooms for more serious ailments. I know it’s hard, but try not to self diagnose on WebMD—as my mom says, as soon as you do that, you feel certain you are definitely dying.

3. You feel judged or shamed.

This personally hits home for me, because it’s happened. Let me spell this out: it is unacceptable for a health care professional to push their personal opinions onto you. This mostly falls under the sexual health range, but it can be referred back to for everything. If someone at your health center outwardly judges you, condemns your life decisions, or refuses to grant you legal medication (like, say, birth control) you need to leave immediately. Disregard this person’s actions. Do not feel ashamed, or like you are wrong. Contact your university’s administration immediately and file a complaint. Spread the word. Research other health care options: free clinics, Planned Parenthood, or if you have the means, a private practice. Dr. Nissenbaum says, “the campus would be the first good place to go, because by law whatever you discuss with them is confidential. They’re obliged to keep anything you say to them to themselves.” However she acknowledged that when they do not meet your needs, either physically or emotionally, there are always other options. “It’s often difficult because you’re in a strange city and it’s hard to find care on your own, but your insurance company actually would be able to provide names of people in the area.” She also emphasized that if you do not have insurance outside of your school, there are free clinics that may actually have easier access than trying to get into a private practice. The important thing here is twofold: first of all, that you get the care you need, and second of all, that your university appropriately addresses the unacceptable behavior. You don’t want this to happen to another woman.

Bottom Line?

Millions of things can go wrong at a doctor’s appointment. Just amongst the HC staff, we’ve had a bunch of different problems. Windsor chronicled her unsatisfactory experience on the Founders’ Blog recently, Rachel Dozier, a Contributing Writer, was told she had a cold when she actually had bronchitis, Scott Rosenfeld’s urine sample was lost when he went in for a routine STI checkup and once the test was finally administered, the staff didn’t let him know his results because “they had called a week earlier and hung up because they got a busy signal.” Joanna Buffum had a particularly upsetting experience wherein she injured her ankle, but because her school didn’t have an x-ray machine, they just gave her an air cast and told her it would get better. A month later Buffum finally got an x-ray done, and it turns out she had suffered a fracture—she now has to go to physical therapy regularly, but will likely never be able to walk in heels or run properly without some pain. “My health center really let me down,” she said. And that can happen. Though I want to stress that oftentimes student health centers are amazing resources, they absolutely are fallible and sometimes the consequences of their failings are huge. That’s why it’s important to stay on top of your physical and mental health, and if you feel like your college’s student health center isn’t helping you, make sure to report the problem, find help elsewhere, and always remember, you are not at fault.


Dr. Patti Nissenbaum, MD Rachel Dozier, James Madison University sophomore Scott Rosenfeld, Carnegie Mellon junior Joanna Buffum, Bowdoin College junior Windsor Hanger, Harvard University senior and HC Founder

Vanessa Friedman is a senior at New York University, majoring in English and minoring in Creative Writing. As an outspoken feminist, she probably should have majored in Gender Studies, but she tries to make up for this error by reading voraciously about the subject and talking incessantly about it to anyone who will listen. She is not as annoying as this makes her sound—hopefully. She has interned at CosmoGirl and Time Out New York Kids and was published in both magazines. The young adult/kids publications are well suited for her, as when she’s not reading, writing, or deconstructing our patriarchal society, she is a professional babysitter extraordinaire. It is also important to know that Vanessa is firmly Team Gaga.