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Students complain of long wait times, repeated outside referrals at Student Health Services

student health services entrance
The Boston University Student Health Services entrance. BU students expressed frustration with SHS operations, ranging from long wait times while scheduling appointments to frequent referrals to outside health care services. CLARE ONG/ DFP FILE

Boston University students have brought up a number of issues at Student Health Services, including long wait times to schedule appointments and frequent referrals to other health care providers outside of BU. 

SHS is composed of five clinical departments — Primary Care, Wellness and Prevention, Behavioral Medicine, Athletic Training and the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center — as listed on their website. Full-time students can schedule appointments through the online portal Patient Connect. 

Shana Weitzen, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she sought to schedule an appointment with SHS because of an urgent health concern, but was asked to wait for almost a week. 

“They got back to me one or two days later [saying] that I didn’t have an appointment for six days,” she said. “By then, I needed to have the problem resolved, this was something that I felt was really urgent.”

Weitzen added she originally called SHS after booking the available appointment online to see if it was possible to get an earlier appointment, but she said she was instead referred to Urgent Care — an outside health care facility that treats a general range of illnesses and ailments on a mostly walk-in basis.

“I literally couldn’t go to an Urgent Care for this because the services I needed aren’t offered,” she said. “I almost took the train home and skipped class to go to my doctor at home.”

Weitzen said she ultimately canceled the SHS appointment after calling and getting help from her provider at home.

SHS director Judy Platt said students should always call SHS in the event of a medical emergency. 

“When you go online to book, there is an acknowledgment that what you are dealing with is not an emergency,” she said. “If you have an emergency we want to hear from you because there are health care providers within primary care and behavioral medicine every day that will see emergency situations.”

SHS has implemented changes recently to increase urgent emergency services in behavioral medicine and primary care, Platt added. 

Weitzen said she felt “really helpless” being far from her home in New York and unable to receive prompt health care from BU. 

“I just felt like nobody was really trying to help me and that’s a really bad feeling to have when you’re supposed to be at a place where people can help you,” she said

Claire Yu, a sophomore in CAS, said she waited almost one month before finally being able to attend a primary care appointment with SHS early in the semester. 

“My wrist kept hurting for several weeks, and I could not lift heavy objects or type for a long time,” Yu said. “I waited for about three weeks without going to the hospital.”

Yu said later in the semester, on Nov. 9, a second appointment with behavioral medicine was canceled by the time she arrived six or seven minutes late, with Dec. 2 being the next available appointment. 

“SHS did not provide me any guideline to inform me that I cannot be late. Instead, they asked me to come no earlier than five minutes before the appointment time,” Yu wrote in the email. “I didn’t see any guideline that says my appointment would be canceled if I’m late.” 

She added she expected more walk-in availability for mental health counseling and more clarification online regarding the services provided. 

Platt noted that health care providers can now be directly messaged on Patient Connect to avoid the possibility of students missing callbacks from SHS. 

Marjorie Albert, a junior in the College of Communication, said the situation became “frustrating” when both Urgent Care and the SHS were not available in a timely manner.

Albert said she was told by SHS that there are no available appointments for about the next two weeks and was instead referred to Urgent Care for a flu-like cold in late September.

“Urgent Care [has] crazy, long lines, and it’s just not really ideal,” Albert said. “So you’re in this very strange spot of choosing the lesser of two evils.”

Platt said SHS refers students to Urgent Care if there are no available appointments left on a given day. She added visits to those facilities include a copayment — an out-of-pocket expense which can vary depending on health insurance — but said SHS tries to avoid referring students out of SHS. 

“We know it’s a copay, we know when you’re sick it doesn’t feel great to have to go somewhere else,” she noted. “We are trying to give people advice over the phone and give them practical things they can do at home without having to go to Urgent Care.”

Platt added that the majority of the “thousands” of students SHS sees weekly do not get referred to other providers.

Derek Wagher, a sophomore in the College of General Studies, said when he experienced leg pain last semester SHS initially asked them to wait two months for an ultrasound test. He added that SHS rescheduled the test for the following week after he complained. 

Wagher said the ultrasound results came up with nothing and SHS told him to wait until the pain lessened. When the pain did not improve after a few weeks, they said they were referred to BU Sports Medicine.

“They said if it keeps getting worse, just go to Urgent Care,” Wagher said. “​​I just got the sense that they really didn’t know what to do.” 

Christina Yin, a senior in COM, said when she made a mental health appointment with SHS in September, the earliest available time slot was in mid-October. 

“I just don’t think it’s the best idea to just have this huge time gap in between,” Yin said. “I feel like I cured myself before the appointment happened because it’s just way too long.”

Platt said wait times for behavioral medicine have been longer this semester compared to previous ones, but added SHS is “actively working” to increase access to mental health care and add more behavioral medicine providers. 

She said many students have booked appointments online and failed to show up more often this semester, noting that as a result, they “take that appointment from another student.” 

“That has happened more this year than any other year,” Platt said. “We could give many more appointments every week if people canceled their appointment if they weren’t going to show up.”

Platt added that students can cancel their appointments online.

Yin said SHS should offer more detailed guidelines beyond the existing information on health care and insurance in the United States for international students and others who are unfamiliar with the system, even if students end up being referred to an outside provider. 

Platt said SHS recently hired a new marketing and communications professional in order to help spread information about health care services and wellness tips on social media platforms such as Instagram

“I do think many times for our visits we’re giving people the same information that’s right on our website,” she said. “We want to get that information out to people more … I don’t know [if] a lot of students read the website, but I think the Instagram promotional series was good and we are planning to do much more of that.”

Platt said she urges students to submit feedback to SHS and reach out about any concerns.

“We’re always in a state of continual improvement,” Platt said. “Unless we get the feedback, you don’t know, and if you don’t know about something, you can’t change it.”

Platt added that SHS’s mission is to be the first resource for students and quickly care for them, and asked for patience as they continue through the challenges of the pandemic. 

“This has been an incredibly hard almost two years for so many people, it’s been incredibly hard in health care as well,” she said. “We really want to be the first stop for students, and if there’s anything that we can take care of quickly so that students can feel better and get better, that’s our main goal.”

 

2 Comments

  1. Alessandra Kellermann of BU Parents United

    We have given plenty of feedback and as much as we adore Dr.Platt – this is not about students cancelling appts. The fact that more staff won’t be hired to address mental health needs which we begged for last year all the way to President Brown , is inexcusable. It truly seems out of her hands but she has to placate everyone while her budget is decided by the higher ups. There already have been several hushed up suicide attempts that could have resulted in serious trauma with fires and floods for more than just the troubled student…when BU makes mental health their priority – they will shine and that includes no excuses for not having enough appointments and staff for students for both physical and mental health (behavioral health) needs during this pandemic, flu season and with COVID infections on the increase again . BU’s tuition continues to increase
    and they have been warned over and over again that these are tragedies waiting to happen when ignored or dealt with casually and slowly placing bandaids on issues instead of real change. BU has plenty of endowment monies – invest in your students. Stop the excuses. We just wrote a long e-mail to President Brown, Dean Elmore and Dr.Platt a few weeks ago only to be met with silence. That speaks volumes.
    What kind of message is this to students? Their physical and mental health affects their academics. Please wake up BU.

  2. Tracy L McElhenie

    Wow! Sounds like a lot of excuses: “kids don’t show up to their appts.”, “it’s been incredibly hard in health care as well”.

    Sounds like they need a larger staff and have space for emergency walk-ins. And is there a FEEDBACK button on the Patient Portal – right there for all the kids to see when they can’t get an appointment?