Back to School: 3 Tips for College Health Centers

Advice to on-campus healthcare professionals from the students they treat

While fall may not start until September, the end of August marks the conclusion of summer for college students everywhere. As they pack their bags and begin to prepare for the hard work ahead of them, their minds rarely venture from thoughts of required math courses and Friday night parties to the one location where a large percentage of students will visit at least once during their college career: the health center.

Between 2006 and 2010, an estimated 49% of students at private higher education institutions and 43% at public institutions utilized their campus’s health center. However, many students rely on these services not out of want, but of need: When students live on campus, their college’s health center is often the only health service they can access or afford. Further, living on campus is far from a rarity … an estimated 40% of students at public colleges and 64% at private colleges live in dorms or other campus housing.

Despite the necessity of utilizing campus health centers, many students try to steer clear of these facilities. They may be afraid of the unfamiliar territory or believe their concerns won’t be heard. Maybe they have never made their own appointments and feel unsure about the process. A wide range of fears can prevent students from going to their campus health center, even when they are seriously ill.

Healthcare providers want the best for their patients. If potential patients are afraid to seek medical help, however, what can these professionals do? ADVANCE spoke with several current college students who had advice for campus healthcare providers who want to make their center a more welcoming place.

Listen Carefully

Listening to and considering a patient’s concerns is a primary responsibility of healthcare professionals. In a crowded campus health center with a constant flow of patients it can be difficult, if not impossible, to spend more than a few minutes with each student. Although it might not be easy, it’s crucial to take the time to truly listen to each patient—and to show that you are doing so.

“The best piece of advice I could give to any doctor or nurse, especially at a campus health center, is to listen to the patient,” said Angela Christaldi, a senior at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “They know their own body, they most likely know their medical history, so if they say something is wrong, at least take that into consideration.”

Student in library with laptop

Be Present Outside of the Office

With their busy schedules, healthcare professionals who work on college campuses often don’t have time to explore the campus. However, using even a few minutes of free time to be present on campus outside the health center can help build a connection with students.

“Being present on campus is so vital because then students see your face and feel comfortable around you,” said Lauren Bull, a senior at Alvernia University in Reading, Pa. “Even something as simple as eating lunch in the cafeteria makes you more approachable as a whole, and I think that’s the key to getting students to come to the health center when they need it most.”

Practice Patience with Patients

Campus health centers are unique in that a large percentage of patients are entirely new to the area. They aren’t familiar with the providers or even the space. It’s crucial for healthcare professionals in these settings to keep this in mind and to be patient.

“When you work at a campus health center, you need a little extra patience—no pun intended,” said Danielle Harvey, a senior at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. “We’re away from home, away from our usual physicians. We don’t know what’s going on. We’re usually there because we called our moms saying we didn’t feel well and they told us to go see you.”

“Students are awkward about being sick, and we can feel uncomfortable because it may be the first time we are sick and don’t have our parents,” agreed Gabriel Unger, a junior at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Conn. “Being caring and friendly helps us feel better.”

“The first time I went to my campus health center, I had no idea where to even begin,” Harvey added. “Where do I check in? Which waiting room do I go to? Am I going to make it to my 12:30 class in time? It took me three or four trips before I mostly got the hang of things. If I ask you where the immunization hall is, and you tell me but I still have a blank look on my face, please don’t get frustrated right away.”