How to prepare your college freshman to manage healthcare away from home

August 16, 2022 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD

If you have a first year college student in your house, you’ve got a busy summer on your hands. There are forms to complete, supplies to buy, bags to pack, and travel plans to make if your child is going away for school. One thing that might not be on your to-do list is helping your child build the skills she, he, or they need to manage their health and wellbeing and get a plan in place to access medical or mental health care if they need it.

Most colleges and universities require that your child have a physical before starting school. This appointment with their pediatrician or adolescent medicine specialist is an opportunity for you to step back and let your child take the lead and get firsthand experience managing their care and communicating with healthcare providers. These skills will be important when they’re at college health services, urgent care, or the emergency room on their own. Before the appointment, encourage your child to make a list of questions they’d like to ask and issues they want to raise with the provider.

There are several other things you can do to make sure your child is better prepared to manage health issues at college:

  • Get them well versed in their medical history. Go over your child’s personal medical history with them, especially if they have a chronic condition, had a serious illness like childhood cancer, or take medication on a regular basis. It’s also helpful to share your family medical history. You can put together a document they can store on their phone so they can provide the information to any new doctor they see or in an emergency. A health advisor can create, review, and update a secure electronic medical record for your child to ensure all providers who treat them have a complete picture of their personal and family medical history.
  • Make sure their health insurance provides coverage where they’ll be attending college. Talk with your health insurer and find out if there are in-network providers in the area where your child will be at school. If there aren’t, ask what coverage you have out of network. If you don’t have out of network coverage, many colleges and universities offer health insurance plans for students. Review the coverage to make sure it offers what your child needs, for example coverage for mental health care services or prescriptions. Review how to access health insurance coverage if your child doesn’t have experience with this.
  • Connect with providers for away from home care. While many colleges have health services that can handle most basic needs and may offer limited mental health services, you should also help your child connect with providers in their new college town, especially if they live with a chronic condition like asthma or diabetes, are receiving care for a mental health issue, or take medication on a regular basis. You can get a list of in-network providers from your health insurer or talk with campus health services for a list of local doctors they recommend. Make an appointment as soon as you can to establish care with the local provider so your child doesn’t have a gap in care. And share a copy of your child’s medical record with all new providers. If your child takes medication, arrange to have their prescriptions transferred to a local pharmacy or find out if your insurance has a mail order pharmacy option. There are also companies that will deliver medications, such as Amazon and Capsule.
  • Teach your child when to seek care. Young people who are healthy tend to assume they’re invincible and may not seek care when they need it. Talk with your child about what symptoms mean they should go to health services, their local provider, or urgent care, like a fever of 103 degrees or higher, a cough that lasts more than a week, shortness of breath, a serious injury like a concussion or deep cut, or any symptoms that last more than 10 days without improving. Also discuss mental health symptoms that may mean they need to see someone, like persistent sadness or hopelessness, severe insomnia or sleeping a lot more than usual, changes in appetite, an increase in anxiety, social withdraw, heavy drinking or substance use, or thoughts of self-harm.
  • Complete a HIPAA authorization. Once your child is 18 (or younger in some states) healthcare providers cannot provide you with any information about their condition or care without your child’s approval. That could create a difficult situation if you child is seriously ill or injured. Before school starts, have your child complete a HIPAA authorization form that names you as a person to whom their medical information can be disclosed. Your child can indicate what types of information can be shared, for example excluding information about sexual health. You also may want to discuss having your child complete a durable power of attorney and medical power of attorney, which allows you to make medical decisions on their behalf if they are not able to.
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