Melissa Holzberg: Student Health Service should expand hours to better serve students

I looked at the time on the my phone. The numbers “1:30” and the letters “p.m” had never made me more infuriated.

It was after noon on a Saturday, which meant Student Health Service’s walk-in hours had ended. It meant that, for what turned out to be a sinus infection, I couldn’t be seen at the clinic until after the weekend.

That weekend was followed by President’s Day, which was followed by a snow day. Now, my timing was impeccably poor, and GW’s not at fault for following its snow day protocol and closing all administrative offices, including SHS.

But that weekend emphasized a preexisting problem in the accessibility of health care on campus. Day after day, I continued to lie in bed, sick. SHS continued to be closed, the CVS minute clinic in Georgetown had a wait time of more than an hour, and I didn’t want to spend what I knew would be a hefty sum at the emergency room. Left with few options, I headed to an urgent care clinic in Arlington.

As I sat in the waiting room filling out insurance papers, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was unable to get the help I needed at my school just because of a measly three inches of snow or because the day on the calendar was what it was.

SHS is currently open Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The health center is also open on Saturdays for walk-in appointments from 9 a.m. to noon, with the website stressing that those hours are “for urgent care only.”

But not all spurts of illness happen during business hours, and not all students are even able to make an appointment time during the workday because of classes and work schedules. We live in a 24/7 world, and it is time for our health clinic to reflect that.

SHS has changed its hours before. In 1999, the Student Association Senate proposed a resolution to have the health clinic extend its hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to 7 p.m. so students who worked during business hours would be able to see a physician.

The motion passed – the clinic extended its hours, clarifying that the they would be walk-ins only and that lab tests would not be available. I’m asking for the same system on Sundays and days when classes are canceled.

Isabel Goldenberg, the director of SHS, declined through a spokesperson to comment on when or why the office’s hours were shortened since 1999.

While she also declined to comment on the potential cost of extending the hours of SHS, it obviously wouldn’t be free or even cheap. But there are ways to mitigate potential costs. Instead of fully staffing the clinic during the weekends, having just a few physicians on call during acute walk-in hours for emergencies and not offering lab testing would keep costs down while addressing a clear student need.

GW has made significant strides over the past year in student health. The University centralized SHS and the University Counseling Center in the Marvin Center and has pledged to use part of a tuition hike to funnel money into UCC.

But people’s physical health also affects their mental health: Over President’s Day weekend, for example, I panicked about how I’d handle my upcoming midterms if I didn’t get better soon.

Now, this may have just been a temporary stressor, not a full-blown mental health problem, but it goes to show that being sick and feeling like there’s nowhere to get help can make someone feel helpless. GW could further its case that it cares about students’ mental health by giving them access to physicians no matter the day of the week or the weather.

When I was sick and couldn’t get the antibiotics I was sure that I needed, I called the SHS 24-hour phone line and asked what they would suggest I do. The answer was for me to go to the hospital. When a patient receives a bill from an ER visit, they’re usually unpleasantly surprised by the cost, according to a 2013 study on emergency department hospital costs.

For example, the median cost for an emergency room visit for an upper respiratory infection – such as strep throat or a sinus infection – is $740, according to the study. Susan Griffiths, the managing director of public relations at GW Hospital, declined to comment on the hospital’s behalf about the average cost of an ER visit there.

For a student not on the University’s health insurance plan, a visit to SHS will cost $25 if he or she doesn’t need lab testing done. If someone comes in with an upper respiratory infection, like the one I had, he or she would pay the flat fee of $25.

While adjusting hours at SHS might seem like a headache, expecting uninsured students to pay a hefty sum at the emergency room because they missed a narrow window of clinic hours is unreasonable.

Now, most of GW’s peer schools have similar if not the same student health hours – so we’re in line with the status quo. The health center at Tufts University, for example, has essentially the same hours as GW during the week.

But on Saturdays and any holiday when Tufts residence halls are open, the health center is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. That means that even on a holiday like President’s Day, Tufts students can receive care from their student clinic.

It’s time for GW to make the same kind of history that its campaigns ask students to make every day. It is time to extend our student health services hours and provide students with the care we need, when we need it.

Melissa Holzberg, a freshman majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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