On Monday, September 9, Medical Director of the Student Health Center Leslie Lawrence attended the Student Senate’s weekly general body meeting to discuss health concerns among students. Chief among these was the topic of medical excuses for classes.
Prior to the Senate meeting, a post was started on Reddit by Student Life Committee Chair Kyle Keraga ’15. The post received a significant amount of feedback from students who wished to voice their concerns and propose solutions to common problems.
Lawrence began the discussion by explaining his goals for the visit. He emphasized his desire to see that student concerns were properly discussed, and he hoped to gain the support of the Senate regarding his ideas for a solution to the current issue of medical excuses. As Lawrence said, medical excuses “have been a thorn in the side of students and a thorn in [the Health Center’s] side” for several years. “I would love to see the policy change,” he said.
He then explained that the Health Center tended to see a rather regular pattern regarding excuses. Namely, few students attempted to acquire excuses at the beginning of the semester, but the number builds quickly near the end of the semester. He added that, to complicate matters, there also tends to be more sick students during this period of time. Due to the Health Center’s limited staffing, they are often unable to address every student’s concern. As a result, said Lawrence, the Health Center “tends to side with sick students.” In other words, those students who arrive at the Health Center with an illness are given priority to those who are simply seeking a medical excuse for a previous illness.
Lawrence speculated that this may be one of the reasons for the fact that “the number one reason people complain about the Health Center is excuses.” He added that this problem may also be compounded by other Institute offices, some of which no longer provide students with excuses for missed classes.
To address the situation, Lawrence described two possible solutions he had devised. His personal preference, which he admits has no chance of being implemented at RPI, would involve no attendance requirements. “Everyone’s an adult here,” he added.
The second solution would be to have the whole school implement a policy similar to that used by many employers around the country. Essentially, each student would be able to miss three classes without having to provide some kind of note to excuse the absence. Students would still be required to inform professors of their intent to miss a class. Any additional absences, though, would require a medical excuse.
“It shows a bit more faith in students,” explained Lawrence. “Why should students have to come see me to know whether they’re sick enough to miss a class?”
After his brief presentation, Lawrence opened up the discussion to the Senate as a whole. Keraga stated that students on Reddit had three main complaints about the current situation surrounding medical excuses. These involved students who were too sick to physically make it to the Health Center, students who were promised excuses but did not actually receive them, and that professors still had a final say when deciding which excuses would be accepted.
Facilities and Services Committee Chair Christina Gilliland ’15 asked about the current medical excuse procedure, as she and a number of other senators had never personally required a medical excuse. Lawrence explained that, in the past, the Health Center would write physical notes for students. More recently, however, excuses are done digitally. This year, a new policy has been implemented by which the Health Center provides a list of students requiring medical excuses to class deans. The deans then inform all relevant professors about the medical excuses. Lawrence added that this actually makes things much easier for the Health Center, as medical staff do not have access to student schedules.
Another issue, brought up by Erin McAllister ’14, involved appointment times. She explained that many students had complained about the amount of time they had spent waiting, despite making an appointment online. According to Lawrence, this was a problem of perception. “From our point of view, your appointment time starts as soon as you start filling out paperwork,” he said. He added that, according to satisfaction surveys, the Health Center was very rarely more than five minutes behind schedule.
Senate Communications Committee Chair Shoshana Rubinstein ’16 praised the current online appointment system, although she was unsure whether this would be able to handle potential traffic if all students knew about the system. However, she was concerned with the strict language of the excuse policy and asked whether it had been compared to other universities’ policies. Lawrence admitted that he was only familiar with a few policies, but explained that many university health centers do not provide medical excuses at all.
With regard to transporting sick students, Lawrence explained that the Health Center has neither a vehicle of its own nor access to one. The current method of transporting students to Samaritan Hospital involves providing students with a pass that requires Red Hawk shuttles to stop at the hospital. However, he was open to the idea of working with the Department of Public Safety or RPI Ambulance to improve the situation.
When the issues of walk-in services and home visits came up, Lawrence explained that, in both cases, the limiting factor was funding. The Health Center only provides walk-in hours from 10 am–1:30 pm on weekends. However, if students require immediate attention, including for STD testing, they try to accommodate students’ needs. For STD testing in particular, Lawrence promoted the Health Center’s Get Yourself Tested clinics, which occur on Wednesdays.
Similarly, for home visits, the Health Center simply does not have the staff required to hire another staff member to visit students on a regular basis. Lawrence explained that such a hire could increase student health fees by $50 or more. Alternatively, students asking for home visits could pay for the service, but he believes such a policy would discourage students from ever using the service in the first place.
Many students on Reddit and around campus also brought up the idea of an on-campus pharmacy, or at least an on-campus location to pick up prescriptions. Lawrence said that, in the past, the Health Center provided just such a service. However, changes in New York State health laws require that a licensed pharmacist be on site to provide counseling if necessary. Again, hiring such an individual would require an increase in the student health fee.
Students also complained about misdiagnoses, although Lawrence explained that many of these complaints regarded access to antibiotics. He said that the Health Center does not write prescriptions for such drugs unless absolutely necessary. Lawrence added that the Center for Disease Control does not recommend the use of antibiotics for such things as a sore throat or bronchitis. “We try to teach the current though process of the world’s leading medical scientists,” he said.
Lawrence ended the discussion by stating that he and the rest of the staff at the Health Center are eager to work with students to address student concerns. He added that he hopes to hear more from both the Senate and the entire student body.
For more information about the Health Center and its services, visit http://studenthealth.rpi.edu/. This also provides access to the online portal, which provides members of the RPI community with access to many online services.