Students depleting limited Health Center appointments for sick notes

Kim Thompson

Some professors’ attendance policies are draining appointments from the DeWeese Health Center. As flu season hits full swing, students needing notes to excuse them from class are consuming appointments.

“There’s things that students don’t feel well enough to go to class, but they’re not sick enough to come to the health center,” said Lori Christopher, nursing manager at the health center. “We don’t want to send people away from the health center. If they want to come in for us to diagnose them with a cold, that’s OK, but … the things that get frustrating are the professors that make students jump through hoops.”

Stomach virus, common colds and diarrhea are illnesses students stay home from class for, but they don’t necessarily require medical attention, Christopher said.

The health center provides a walk-out statement to every patient, but some professors won’t accept it as an excuse from class. The students then return to the health center seeking a written medical excuse, using up nurses’ time.

But as a standard policy, Christopher said the health center doesn’t provide written notes unless medically necessary — circumstances when students should definitely stay at home to protect themselves and others.

Christopher cited strep throat, mononucleosis and severe flu cases as illnesses for which the health center would provide notes.

To further complicate the situation, some students come in after they’ve recovered to get a note.

“There are times that we don’t have a lot of appointments available, and the kids are already feeling better,” said Deborah Fountaine, a nurse at the health center. “Then they make appointments and when they see the nurse, they say they want a note. So the appointments are gone for people who just want notes rather than people who need the appointments.”

Christopher said the health center can’t provide medical notes when students are well.

“We can’t really give a note to someone who was sick two days ago and now they’re better,” Christopher said.

The health center has about 100 appointments every day, not including the triage area, she said. The triage area is reserved for urgent walk-ins.

Faculty Senate Chair Thomas Dowd recognized the problem but said the solutions are limited.

“It’s a problem that has no easy solution,” Dowd said. “The faculty want to be fair and want to help students, but they also don’t want to be taken advantage of.”

To discourage students from missing class on exam days, some professors offer students a make-up exam day the last Saturday of the semester before final exams, he said.

Dowd said he doesn’t take attendance in his large classes but doesn’t follow the textbook in his lectures. So students who choose not to attend class will receive a lower grade on exams, he said.

If students feel they have a valid excuse for missing class, and a professor refuses to accept the excuse, the health center refers students to Greg Jarvie, dean of students and student ombudsman.

“If it’s a legitimate, documented excuse, I have no problem talking to professors,” Jarvie said. “It’s not often that a professor doesn’t accept a physician’s excuse. My role is not to advocate for a student unless they have a legitimate excuse.”

Jarvie added professors should clearly state their attendance policy in the class syllabus, but professors who don’t can fall back on the university’s policy on class attendance.

University policy states: “In the event the absence was due to illness or injury, verification from the health center or other medical officer should be presented to the instructor.”

Contact medicine reporter Kim Thompson at [email protected].