Web diagnoses impact health center visits

This story ran in USA TODAY College on February 1, 2013.

This story ran in USA TODAY College on February 1, 2013.

When Geneseo University senior Jacquie Rivellese arrived at the campus health center with stomach pains, a trip to the hospital wasn’t on her agenda.

And after plenty of dollars and hours spent, it turns out it didn’t have to be.

Misdiagnoses are one of many complaints students make against their universities’ health centers — along with unreasonable wait times and limited financial options. But as campus physicians are caught between the need for individual attention and fast service, a solution is emerging.

Online services like WebMD have changed the way students use their campus health centers. With a few clicks and keywords, a diagnosis may be determined. For many students, that could save hours in the infirmary.

“I usually don’t go to [University Health Services at] St. Liam [Hall] unless I already know what is wrong with me and know they will be able to help in some direct way,” said Ellen Hurley, a sophomore at Notre Dame University. “In my experience they’re not that great at diagnosing a more general array of symptoms. For something like that I usually call my doctor from home.”

She’s not the only one. Dr. Ginette Archinal, MD, medical director at Elon University, often treated college students at her family practice who left their universities to receive better care.

“You’ve got to be able to trust the healthcare at the health center,” she said. “A lot of my kids were away in school at state schools, and they’d come back to Cary [N.C.] get a cold treated because they didn’t trust student health [centers at] Eastern Carolina University or Appalachian State.”

Distrust is mutual at many schools, according to students. Some said they are often tested or even treated for symptoms they say they don’t have or are ignored when explaining a condition.

“I feel the health center staff often doesn’t listen and relies on the patients to be able to assess their health and know the difference between a cough and something that is developing into something worse than that requiring the treatment of antibiotics,” said Rivellese.

But some doctors, including Steve Radi, MD, medical director at Geneseo, said they trust students’ judgment and consider their knowledge a bonus.

“I love it when I hear a student say, ‘I did wonder if it was that because I read it on the Internet,’” Archinal said. “That’s great. The more information the better.”

Relying on the Internet for medical information can have its drawbacks.

With too much information, WebMD can make many illnesses seem worse than they are, leading to unnecessary worry. This brings extra students to the health center, tacking time on to waiting periods.

For better and worse, access to medical help on the Web is changing the landscape of campus health centers. The trick, Archinal said, is to learn not only healthy habits, but how to consume information on the Web.

“Sometimes what you see online isn’t accurate,” she said. “Student health centers should be about not just treating illness, but about [health] education.”

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