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How Healthy Are Campus Health Centers?

June 1, 2006

Hundreds of campus health officials gathered in New York City Wednesday for the annual American College Health Association conference, in an effort to figure out where their complex profession is headed.

"We don’t want to become stagnant,” said Doreen Perez, the current president of ACHA and the director of medical compliance with the University of North Florida. “Where will we be in 10 years?”

In a year that has seen the settlement of drawn-out lawsuits involving student affairs staff, renewed questions over administrative liability involving student mental health matters, and emerging drug and safety issues, no one seemed to have a firm answer to that question.

The keynote speaker of the event, Deborah Prothrow-Stith, associate dean and professor of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health, chose to focus on “making campuses safer communities for students” by trying to combat violence. “It’s more of a problem on your campus than you think,” she said. “We should not build silos around violence issues.”
 
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control suggest that campus violence has actually been on the decrease. Still, Prothrow-Stith said that she’s noticed a marked increase in violence among adolescent girls, and she expects violence among college females to increase in the near future as well.

The biggest concern for some of the estimated 2,000 attendees centered on what their roles should be on their respective campuses in the coming years. Numerous presenters said that it’s not an easy question to ponder, considering the varying financial, organizational and attitudinal differences toward campus health at institutions nationwide.

In a session entitled, “Student Health 2010,” Lesley Sacher, director of the Thagard Student Health Center at Florida State University, offered many candid details. She said that there is no magic bullet for getting health centers to become more respected by their campus officials, specifically administrators and faculty members.

“Development of peripheral vision is crucial,” Sacher offered to a crowded conference room. “You have to lift your head up and look around even if you don’t feel you get paid to do that.” Sacher said that when she was applied for the health director position in 1999, administrators told her that they were considering outsourcing student health. “I said give me a year, and they did,” she recalled. “I wanted to make sure that the health center had roots to every other part of campus.”

In the ensuing years, she said that she has forged relationships with Florida State’s medical directors, student affairs specialists and administrators. Last week, she shared, she got a call from the athletics department. She indicated that the department had not been operating according to current health privacy regulations. “And they thought we could help them out.” She said that they are now doing a shared project together, and the athletics department is paying for some of the costs at the center.

Sacher said that she’s next ready to form partnerships with faculty members, so that they don’t feel that the student health center is not good enough for them. She also said that giving them an option to pay for access to the health center in addition to their current options for standard health insurance could provide a boost in finances.

“Academics think they can exist without us,” she said. “Let’s see what would happen if everyone was throwing up around them. They can’t exist without us.”

Not all health professionals have been able to forge strategies to have the kinds of successes that Sacher spoke about.

Alastair Smith, a director of student health services at San Francisco State University who worked as a medical doctor on a cruise ship before coming to the university 15 months ago, explained that the student health center on his campus has faced numerous financial challenges.

Alastair explained that the current campus center is located underground, and is decades old. He said that it would cost $30 million to build a new facility, and that the money just isn't available.

Alastair said that administrators allowed him to hire the first psychiatrist for the campus just one week ago. Similar plans had fallen through in the past due to financial limitations, he said.

While those kinds of realities were stunning to many in the audience, the ability of leading health professionals to focus on emerging health issues was equally illuminating in a conference session titled “Prescription Drug Abuse on Campus.”

P. Davis Smith, a medical director of the Davison House Health Center at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, said that he’s been asking ACHA officials for years to formulate a session based on this topic, since he’s noticed more instances of prescription drug misuse in his own treatment of students.

“I kept mentioning it, and people said it was a good idea, but no one followed through,” he said. “So, this year, I offered to do it. Even though it isn’t my area of expertise.”

 

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