Behind the health center’s doors
Student Health Center provides healthcare to students, but some are dubious of its reliability
Celina Tebor | Feature Editor | USD Vista
Between the long lines at Aromas and the Mail Center lies the University of San Diego’s Student Health Center (SHC). Located in Maher 140, it serves as USD’s personal primary care medical service. From mild colds to severe allergic reactions, a wide variety of illnesses and health issues can be handled by the SHC.
Pamela Sikes, Director of the Student Health Center, has worked at the SHC for 14 years and worked in medicine for over 20 years.
“Students think of us as a doctor’s office,” Sikes said. “We’re called primary care services. It is things students would normally go to see their doctor or pediatrician. We provide physicals, routine health care, as well as treatment of illnesses and injuries.”
While Sikes said she believed the health center to be a valuable resource to USD students who seek medical care, she was confused by the campus community’s lack of knowledge about the on-campus service.
“It always surprises me how many students didn’t even know we were here,” Sikes said. “This surprised me because we’re involved in orientation and we’re in a great location, but we know that students can really be impacted academically if they’re not feeling well.”
It seems like the majority of USD students are aware of the SHC, however. The USD Vista conducted a random, unscientific questionnaire of 60 undergraduate students, 57 of which knew where the SHC was located. Approximately 23% of full-time students are enrolled in the USD Health Insurance Plan.
There are many differences between the health center and an off-campus clinic.
“To get in a door, there’s no charge,” Sikes said. “Our availability for same day services is something that’s a little different from off campus. If you are sick, you can be seen pretty much same day. And you can get often assessed, get a diagnosis, get a medication, and be out the door. So it’s kind of a one-stop care.”
The health center is relatively small in comparison to most off-campus clinics. While it has its advantages, like same-day and next-day availability, the SHC does not have all the services of a normal off-campus clinic.
“A true urgent care can get x-rays on site,” Sikes said. “They can get blood work on site, same day. We don’t have that same day. If we need to draw blood or need cultures or other things, we send that out in the evening and we get the results usually the next day.”
The health center can schedule x-rays and labs for students, but because they do not have this equipment on-site, students are often referred to off-campus clinics if they need urgent medical care.
Additionally, any staff member of the health center can write students a note to get out of class if needed: no appointment or prescribed medication is necessary to receive a note.
However, some students go to off-campus clinics for other reasons; in fact, some students believe that the health center does not provide accurate diagnoses and prescriptions.
Senior Emily Pitsch visited the SHC to check if she had lice, but she said she was dissatisfied with her visit.
“They combed through my hair and were unsure if they saw anything,” said Pitsch. “The nurse said, trying to illustrate her uncertainty, ‘There’s a 40 percent chance that you might have lice.’”
Unsatisfied with her diagnosis by the SHC, Pitsch went to the Lice Center of America in Clairemont and it determined she should treat for lice.
Some students are skeptical about the health center’s propensity to prescribe non-over-the-counter medication. According to Sikes, the health center gives students and faculty prescriptions when appropriate.
“Antibiotics are our number one common prescription,” Sikes said.
The health center even has a small dispensary on-site that offers both over-the-counter and prescription medications.
Sikes explained why she thinks that some students believe they were not treated correctly at the SHC.
“In the medical world, providers have way over-treated viral illnesses,” Sikes said. “Especially upper-respiratory viral illnesses with antibiotics. And the research, over and over, shows many of these upper-respiratory illnesses are viruses and should not be treated with antibiotics.”
Sikes said that since the USD health center serves a relatively small community, it is easier to take time and explain why a student might not need antibiotics when compared to a busy off-campus clinic.
“In the outside world, sometimes it takes longer to convince patients that they don’t need an antibiotic than to just write the prescription and and get them out the door,” Sikes said.
Pitsch disputed the fact that the health center gives more care and attention than an off-campus clinic would.
“I think the SHC is careless in general and this was just one out of several improper experiences I have had with them,” Pitsch said. “Once I went with a friend who had extreme stomach pains and they made her take two pregnancy tests — which she had to pay for — even though she ensured them that pregnancy was not the cause of the pain.”
Some USD students claimed they tested negatively for strep throat at the USD health center and then tested positively at an off-campus clinic. Sikes said that it is most likely due to the fact that the off-campus clinic did not take the time to do an accurate test for strep.
“We’ll ask [students who tested negatively at USD and positively off-campus] if they got a throat culture [off-campus], and they say ‘No, they just looked at it,’” Sikes said. “We hear that 99 percent of the time.”
Sikes emphasized that the SHC takes both preventative and reactive solutions to keep students healthy.
Part of these efforts are campus-wide matriculation immunization requirements. Students need certain vaccinations before coming on campus at the beginning of the year. If students’ vaccines are outdated, or they need the next part of a vaccine, the health center offers all the vaccines needed.
Sikes said the health center also tries to prevent illnesses like the common cold and flu with free and accessible healthcare for students. Last Wednesday and Thursday, the health center offered free flu shots to students outside of the Student Life Pavilion.
“In terms of right now, we’re dealing with the flu and cold season approaching,” Sikes said. “So we have a pretty strong campaign — we’re taking it out on the road and really just trying to catch students walking by [and giving them flu shots]. We’re partnering with the School of Nursing to get some extra manpower to start getting the word out.”
Sikes said that the SHC does not want cost to be a barrier for student wellness.
“We’re partnered with undergrad AS, the law school, and athletics, and they help provide some funding that allows for the vaccines to be no cost to students,” Sikes said. “This year the Student Health Center itself has put aside some funds for free vaccines.”
Additionally, the health center provides quick, simple care to students who have mild illnesses. Sikes explained that the clinic does this so students do not have to take time out of their day to make an appointment.
“Every time someone comes in with a cold or a flu, we have a little cold and flu bag,” Sikes said. “In it there’s some Kleenex, hand sanitizer, Tylenol and Ibuprofen to manage the symptoms, with a flyer to stay healthy and help manage the symptoms. So it’s education with some tangible stuff.”
Even though the SHC is easily accessible, students such as Pitsch may not be returning to receive medical care, simply because she did not think it had reliable practice standards.
“Initially, the SHC was convenient because I did not have a car but I do not trust their diagnoses,” Pitsch said.
While some students question the quality and effectiveness of USD’s Student Health Center, its staff still does their best to provide effective care even though it functions differently from an off-campus clinic. As long as the health center exists, students will continue to receive quick access to healthcare they desire.