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Campus Care Navigating health care with your college-aged kid

Parents sending their children to college have, for the most part, completely managed the family’s health care up to that point. But once students step on campus, they call the shots — and parents may be denied access to any health data, even though they’re the ones paying the bills.

Health centers have changed too. When I attended a small college in the ’90s, the campus health center was like a school nurse — fine for bandages or Tylenol. Today’s parents need to know that campus health centers are significantly advanced and offer a range of student wellness services. Here’s what else they should know.

Pediatrician Approved
Though it’s a time of transition to adulthood, many college students still see a pediatrician at home. Dr. Michelle Hearns of Pavilion Pediatrics in Lutherville has a positive impression of modern campus clinics, fueled by feedback from patients. “The centers are reliable, staffed by licensed professionals, very straightforward. They’re capable of urgent care, bloodwork, managing pre-existing conditions where students need to touch base with a doctor, etc.” she says. “Common issues are the same across schools: sinus infections, sore throats, urinary tract infections, the need for X-rays, birth control and referrals. Specialized stuff might be managed on a trip home.”

What to know: Your child should be well versed in any health issues, allergies, medicines or chronic problems they may have. You’ll likely fill out forms in advance to give the schools a heads-up on vaccinations, pre-existing conditions, etc., but the students must be confident in managing their own care.

Campus Health Centers
Towson University has about 22,000 students and is in close proximity to several reputable hospitals and numerous urgent care walk-in facilities. The TU Health Center is busy — last school year, it had just shy of 12,000 appointments. Kailah Carden, assistant director of Health Education and Promotion at TU’s Wellness Center, explained that some of the services available through their clinic include preventative services, physicals, same-day appointments and referrals to specialists. Staff includes physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, lab technicians, medical assistants, billing specialists, administrative staff and health educators. Apart from physical medicine, the Wellness Center also offers counseling and holistic therapies. The full picture may vary from campus to campus, but “whether it’s a school with 2,000 students or 20,000, things have come a long way,” Hearns says.

Privacy and Permissions
If a student is a minor, parents will need to consent to treatment, but most college students are over 18 and therefore consent for themselves. HIPAA privacy restrictions are observed, and unless students have granted permission to access health records, parents may be left in the dark. Privacy can be a good thing, since students may be more likely to seek treatment knowing it is confidential. But it can also be difficult if the student is many miles from home and has a health emergency. Karen, mom of a college-age son, says “parents may not be aware that even with coverage on family insurance, if their child becomes ill or is in an accident and is legally an adult, doctors and hospitals cannot communicate with the parents unless the child has given approval for that.”

What to know: Students can complete release forms to allow parents or caregivers (as well as other health-care providers) access to important health data and to communicate with medical personnel in the event of an emergency.

Insurance Coverage
Requirements will vary by institution, but most clinics bill insurance for student health services. The TU Health Center bills insurance, and if a student is without insurance, charges are billed through their bursar account, Carden says. That seems to be standard procedure among colleges, though most do mandate that students have health insurance. Many students stay on their parents’ coverage until after graduation, but school-sponsored health insurance programs are available for those without protection. Eligibility, copays and fees may differ, dependent on insurance.

What to know: Whether the school plan is worth keeping depends on your own insurance. Is the school in an area eligible for coverage? How does it work for out-of-state/network?

Expect the Unexpected
Living in close quarters with new people from different places, stress, lack of sleep, questionable nutrition — it’s like starting preschool all over again. Your big kid is bound to get sick. Throw in possible partying and the potential for overindulgences, injuries and accidents and you can’t deny that access to health care is an important consideration in the college experience. Get informed and keep your student safe and healthy, even away from home.

Hearns advises students to take along contact info for their home provider when they head to college; they can always call that trusted doctor for advice. Common-sense remedies can get students through many minor health complaints. Motrin, hydration and TLC can apply anywhere. Worst case scenario: If a student ignores symptoms and is clearly not well, they are likely to have a friend or teacher who will step up and urge them to seek help.

Does the health center take walk-ins? Head on over. If they’re too busy, make an appointment for the next day. For an urgent issue, they can transport students to emergency care or refer them to a specialist.

“College is just as much a period of adjustment for parents as for their young adults,” Hearns says. “Learning to navigate the system independently is a valuable part of the process for students.”

Be confident in their ability to do so, and consider yourself the backup rather than the fixer.

About Courtney McGee

Courtney McGee is a freelance writer, cancer warrior, runner/triathlete and compulsive Candy Crusher. She lives in Towson with her husband, their three children and their high-maintenance rescued hound dog.

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