It’s the primary source of health care for the 7Cs, providing medical services like immunizations and check-ups to about 8,500 students. And as the weather turns colder and flu season arrives, Student Health Services has a message for students: The doctor is out.
Or at least the nurses are.
SHS temporarily suspended scheduling routine appointments last week — including physicals, women’s health exams, vaccinations, tuberculosis tests and sexually transmitted infection testing — due to a “critical” shortage of registered nurses and medical providers, according to a statement posted to its website.
The center is currently operating as an urgent care clinic and will be referring students who cannot wait for appointments to alternate off-campus providers, the statement said.
“You can’t get a doctor’s excuse if you can’t see the doctor … The staffing shortage needs to be addressed … especially this time of year, when everybody’s sick.” – Clint Isom PZ ’20, Pitzer Student Senate President
“We have not had the capacity to schedule appointments for some students with viral symptoms or other urgent care needs in a timely way. … Same-day appointments for students requiring immediate care have been especially limited,” the statement said.
The decision to suspend routine appointments was made Sept. 24, according to Janet Smith Dickerson, vice president for student affairs at The Claremont Colleges Services. But, no email was sent to students until more than a week later, the day after TSL published the news.
The departures of two registered nurses, both due to personal reasons, left SHS unable to provide routine services to students, according to officials.
“We realized a week and a half ago that students with urgent care needs were being turned away,” Dickerson said. “We did not anticipate that we would be so short-staffed and would have to move to a modified operation.”
When Pitzer Student Senate President Clint Isom PZ ’20 felt extremely sick on Sept. 30, he went to SHS for a walk-in appointment. But staff told him there were no nurses to see him.
They gave him a plastic bag filled with tissues and cough drops and told him to reschedule his appointment for two weeks later or call 911 if his condition was urgent, he said.
Isom attempted to get the doctor’s note he needed to complete an assignment, but couldn’t.
“You can’t get a doctor’s excuse if you can’t see the doctor,” he said. “The staffing shortage needs to be addressed … especially this time of year, when everybody’s sick.”
SHS has struggled to hire new registered nurses amidst a competitive regional marketplace, Dickerson said. She’s engaged in meetings with TCCS budget and human resources offices to ensure SHS staff are being paid competitive salaries.
“We thought that we should be able to call [a] nursing temporary agency and have someone here the next day but it doesn’t work like that,” Dickerson said. “It’s a very competitive market for people in health professions now.”
The U.S. unemployment rate for registered nurses stands at 1.4 percent, less than half the national unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, according to U.S. News.
SHS has three doctors, two nurse practitioners and only one registered nurse on staff, according to Dickerson. But the statement on the SHS site said it’s made only “incremental progress” in hiring and added one physician provider this month and one registered nurse this week.
Dickerson said SHS will hire another registered nurse at the end of next week.
SHS will not be able to retire the urgent-care model until at least after fall break, Dickerson said. All non-urgent appointments will be scheduled for Oct. 14 at the earliest, and all pre-existing appointments will be rescheduled for the week of Oct. 7, according to the statement.
TCCS decided to suspend routine appointments in consultation with student deans across the 5Cs, according to TCCS spokesperson Colin Tudor.
“We realized a week and a half ago that students with urgent care needs were being turned away … We did not anticipate that we would be so short-staffed and would have to move to a modified operation.” – Janet Smith Dickerson, vice president for student affairs at The Claremont Colleges Services
Students from Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College and Scripps College all received emails announcing the temporary suspension Thursday, a day after TSL published a story about the statement on the SHS site. Pomona College did not make a school-wide announcement.
SHS said it will begin subsidizing Lyft rides for students to visit off-campus medical providers, Dickerson said.
Student body presidents across the 5Cs expressed their concern about the temporary suspension.
ASPC will be working closely with deans’ offices and TCCS to ensure students can access routine and preventative care until the situation is resolved, ASPC President Miguel Delgado PO ’20 said via message.
“7C administrators need to prioritize SHS staffing and recognize that consistent access to health resources is critical to student success,” he said.
“SHS provides necessary care for 5C students, and many students rely on Student Health for primary care while in Claremont,” ASCMC President Dina Rosin CM ’20 said in an email to TSL. “Forcing students to push back appointments or make appointments off-campus will ultimately harm the most vulnerable students.”
“These are services that students pay for and colleges should provide,” he said.
SHS has struggled for the past few years with chronic staff shortages. It hasn’t had a full-time director since at least spring 2018 and lost the previous two in less than a year.
The search for a new director is continuing with limited success. Dickerson said she’s planning on interviewing another candidate within the next two weeks.
The center was forced to suspend X-ray services last May after the office’s X-ray technician took medical leave. As of March 2018, SHS had just two physicians on staff, lengthening wait times for appointments.
SHS will provide students needing immediate medical help with alternative treatment locations, the statement said, and instructed students who require transportation support to consult with their deans.
A list of alternative treatment providers is unavailable online, but the list was sent to Scripps students in an email Thursday. TSL has compiled them here.
This article was last updated Oct. 4 at 10:56 a.m.