Last Monday, the Williams College Health Center was featured on WBZ-TV News – Boston. WBZ ran a feature story on college infirmaries, in which they questioned whether the infirmaries are capable of providing adequate health care to students. The mention of Williams focused on the 1993 death of Alanna Haywood of meningococcal septicemia.
In 1993, Haywood’s parents filed suit against the College and several of its health care professionals for “wrongful death and breach of contract.” The case was concluded in December of 1998, when several of the health care professionals were found guilty of negligence, causing pain and suffering and loss of chance of survival. The jury awarded the Haywood family nearly one million dollars.
In the face of this verdict, in both a letter to the student body in December of 1998 and the official statement to Diane Schulman of WBZ, the College maintained its belief in the efficacy of its health services.
In the letter, Dean of the College Peter Murphy asserted, “The College continues to believe, however, that the care Alanna received was appropriate.”
“We believe that we provide a safe environment where students with many different health-related concerns and stresses can come and receive comfort and care,” contended the College in its statement.
Director of Health Services Ruth Harrison declined comment on the Haywood case and the news story. “The case is over, and I can’t discuss the particulars,” she said.
“I think students get good care,” Harrison added. She said the number of students using the Health Center has increased.
There seems to be a discrepancy between outside reports and the College stance on the Health Center. Among students, whether or not they know of the Haywood case and the WBZ feature, dissatisfaction with the Health Center is common.
“This fall, I had a really bad ear infection, and they refused to give me medication until the fourth time I went in there. They kept giving me Sudafed. I ended up calling my doctor at home,” said Charis Anderson ’01.
“They’re very hesitant to diagnose you with something that requires medication. They should not wait three months before diagnosing you, because it is their responsibility to give you medication,” agreed Moira Shanahan ’01.
Ruth Harrison defended the Health Center against criticisms. Harrison said she has sensed concern among students about prescriptions. “Students really want to get antibiotics and get it fixed,” she said. Yet, Harrison defended the Health Center. “Many, many times an antibiotic will not do anything,” she said. She said that in some cases antibiotics could make you feel worse.
Another common criticism is that Health Center doctors, who do not know students’ medical histories, are hesitant to listen to students about their own conditions. “I thought I was getting tonsilitis, and they said it was an ear infection. I knew what the problem was, and they insisted on giving me another medicine,” said Ben Smeal ’00.
“It’s time-consuming to keep going back to the Health Center when you know you have something and they won’t help you,” added Shanahan.
“They don’t know you as well as your doctor, which is to be expected, but they should listen to you and trust your judgment if you think you’re getting sick,” echoed Anderson.
Harrison defended the decisions of the doctors. “They really can’t prescribe you medicine when you don’t already have an illness,” she said. Doctors ask students to return if they feel worse to be certain of their condition.
Students mentioned a lack of continuity as another shortcoming of the Health Center. “Each person approached treating me differently. I kind of wished there were someone overseeing me and giving me a more clear idea of what was going on. I just got the idea that they really didn’t have any overall plan,” said Smeal.
“On the one hand, the Health Center has been really good to me. On the other hand, they’re really inconsistent,” said Shanahan.
Again, Harrison denied the charges. “The nurses talk to each other, and they follow protocols. We’ve worked hard to make sure they follow them,” she said. The protocols describe the signs, symptoms, proper treatment, and physician referral policy for a wide range of illnesses. The protocols are revised yearly. “It’s not arbitrary how one nurse treats you in comparison with another,” Harrison assured.
Another area of student concern is the wait. “I feel like it’s really difficult to see a doctor,” said Anderson.
Harrison said this is the complaint that she has heard most often, but she defended that a system of appointments would not work, either. She said the wait is shorter than in doctor’s offices.
Registered Nurse Maureen Strype also recognized the problem. “I have heard complaints from students. Sometimes people have had to wait a long time to be seen,” Strype said. “Actually, some people have left when it’s a little busy,” she added.
While the Health Center has explanations for students’ issues, feelings about the Health Center are not all negative.
“Some of the nurses were super and really wanted to make sure I was getting better,” said Smeal.
“I think they put up with a lot from us. A lot of people are complaining over nothing,” said John Francis ’99. “Despite good arguments to the contrary, they still take drunk students, which I think is good,” he added.
Amy Warren ’01 said that she has had positive experiences at the Health Center. “I was sick so much this fall, and whenever I was there, they were helpful in trying new prescriptions,” Warren said. “Dale Newman [the Nurse Practitioner] makes it much more convenient, because you don’t have to wait to see a doctor, so you can get better faster,” she added. Warren said Ms. Newman even called to check up on her.
In fact, Harrison was shocked by the complaints. “We don’t get those complaints. We get a lot of, ‘thanks for taking care of us,’” she said.
“No one has complained to me about other things (besides the wait),” agreed Nurse Strype.
Harrison indicated that the Health Center is open to student concerns. “Students need to bring their issues to my attention or to the attention of someone here so we can talk about it and address it,” she said. “I think it’s a pretty responsive staff,” she added.