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The Student Health Center on the north end of Western’s campus has been supporting students virtually. // Photo by Ella Banken

By Sienna Boucher

The Student Health Center switched to virtual appointments only during spring quarter due to COVID-19.

Many students have gone home to their families, but there are plenty still residing in Bellingham. First-year Western student Emily Wickham said that in these times money is tight, and the Student Health Center has been a good financial option for students looking for care. 

Emily Wickham chose to stay in Bellingham. Her regular doctor was back home in Sammamish. She was concerned about spending too much money at a regular doctor’s office. 

Wickham said that she contacted the Student Health Center over the phone, because they had gone virtual.

“I called them one morning about making an appointment for something I knew would require a prescription,” Wickham said. “I was on the phone for probably 15 minutes for her to ask me questions about symptoms and she got me a virtual appointment with a nurse 20 minutes later.”     

Wickham said that even though she wasn’t able to get a physical test, she was able to get a prescription based on what she spoke to the doctor about. 

It was her first time using the Student Health Center. Although she would have rather taken an in-person test to get precise results, Wickham said, “They were super helpful and informative.”

Wickham isn’t the only one who wishes there were still physical tests offered, rather than just a virtual evaluation. Dr. David Hansen, a primary care provider at the Student Health Center, agreed that the lack of physical exams is one of the biggest downfalls of virtual care. 

“The physical exam is an important tool that medical providers can use to clarify a diagnosis,” Hansen said.

Although the pandemic was unexpected, the Student Health Center began preparing for COVID-19 in January by switching to online medical records. 

Since the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order was implemented, the Student Health Center has been working trying to continue to provide the highest quality of health care available during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A great deal of time and energy has been devoted to redesigning everything we do,” Hansen said. 

Although there has been a lot of change put in place to help keep the Student Health Center useful to students, there has been a decrease in visits since they went virtual. 

“Typically, the Student Health Center manages 150 visits per day. We are now only seeing 10-15% of normal with virtual care,” Hansen said. He is concerned not enough students know they can still reach out to the Student Health Center. “Although updates to our website and social media posts have made some students aware of our availability, we plan to continue more outreach.” 

While technological difficulties can create some obstacles when reaching out for care, the Student Health Center is looking to overcome any hurdles, Hansen said. If there is limited video, audio or WiFi connection, the Student Health Center is able to switch to the phone so that care can be delivered in a timely fashion. 

Virtual appointments may have their limitations, but they are part of an effort to slow the pandemic.

“Limiting in-person appointments drastically reduces the risk of spread of COVID-19,” Hansen said. 

As the pandemic progresses, there are still more changes to come for the Student Health Center. On April 28, the Student Health Center began providing in-person services to a small subset of students in order to accommodate students who cannot afford to go to a regular doctor's office. 

“If, during a telehealth visit, it is determined that further evaluation and physical examination is necessary, a student will be scheduled to see a provider at the Student Health Center,” Hansen said. 

In regard to COVID-19 related symptoms, Hansen said they will be able to see students with respiratory symptoms in their Student Health Center Annex. This new addition is located on the ground floor. Non-respiratory patients will be seen in the main center of the clinic. He encourages students who fear they are infected with the COVID-19 to contact the Student Health Center. If they have concerning symptoms, they will be scheduled for a telehealth visit with a medical provider.

The Student Health Center is also working with Northwest Labs to offer drive-through testing. Testing is only available with a doctor’s order. “After the order is placed, the student will call Northwest Lab to schedule the appointment. Results are expected 24 to 48 hours after the test is performed. Walk-in visits are not accepted,” Hansen said. 

The Student Health Center is also still offering mental health evaluations and services while working closely with the Counseling Center. 

Marie Anne Thieler, a licenced mental health counselor at Counseling Center said, “We refer students to each other’s services frequently, and our staff feels confident in directing our students to the Health Center for medical issues or for a medication evaluation.” Theiler also said workshops and counseling are offered specifically for students taking mental health medication.  

The Counseling Center has been offering remote services since late March. They offer initial consultations by phone and, when necessary, follow-up video conferencing. Additionally, they are offering a variety of virtual workshops for spring quarter.

According to Thieler, it is beneficial to coincide both medical treatment and counseling when dealing with mental illness. 

As the situation around COVID-19 continues to impact the Western community, the Student Health Center assures students they are still here to provide quality health care.  

To make a virtual appointment, call 360-650-3400.

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