A Bitter Pill

“Lazy, hung-over or stressed out?” How many times have we heard the stereotypical descriptions of students? To some extent, it is true, we do fit the stereotypes. It is pretty rare to find a student who relishes 9am starts, and rarer still to find one who does not struggle to get out of bed half an hour before. It is just as unusual to find a lecture hall in which there is no symphony of coughing and sniffling, or one in which no-one appears to be dying after a night out which only ended a few hours earlier. Or a student with a particularly regular sleep pattern…
It does seem fair to argue that the university lifestyle does not exactly appear to be conducive to perfect health. For one thing, the average student’s alcohol consumption is higher than that of non-students of the same age. A BMC report on public health has shown that within the UK, 52 per cent of male and 43 per cent of female undergraduates report drinking above the recommended weekly limits of 21 units and 14 units respectively, a significantly higher proportion than amongst 16-24 year olds in the general population. Furthermore, of a sample of 3,075 British students, 15 percent drink at “hazardous” drinking levels of above 50 units per week for men and 36 or more for women. However little we might like to admit it, all those nights down in Cowgate probably aren’t the best thing for our health.
In addition to this, it often seems as though many of us do not spend a huge amount of time thinking about – or spending money on – our nutrition. We skip breakfast to get those extra ten minutes in bed, eat processed junk food purely because it’s cheap and quite often do not buy much in the way of fresh fruit, vegetables or meat because it is too expensive. As an illustration, a ready-made microwavable lasagne with a higher salt than meat content can cost as little as 90 pence, in contrast to the £5 that could easily be spent buying the ingredients for a healthy alternative.
As inhabitants of Edinburgh (and by default old buildings where double glazing is pretty hard to come by), our flats are usually freezing, so at least one of our flatmates is usually battling a bout of flu, steadily munching their way through multiple packets of Soothers and hugging hot-water bottles in a somewhat futile attempt to stay warm. This is of course not to mention the fact that we have suddenly arrived at that time of semester when dozens of monstrous deadlines spontaneously appear, sending the average student’s sleep pattern plummeting into oblivion and their stress levels through the poorly insulated roof.
So, stereotypical students that we might well be, there is an unfortunate likelihood that we will fall ill. The Guardian has recently described university as ‘a recipe for ill health’, and considering the experience of many students, they may well have a point. So where does this leave us? That’s right, en route to the health centre.
Regrettably, for many students, a trip to the University Health Centre is a very reluctant one, as they fear that people – at worst the staff themselves – will think that they are wasting the doctors’ time. Kirsty, an Edinburgh student, comments: “In the majority of my experience, I have been uncomfortable going to the health centre because of the dismissive attitudes of some of the doctors. I have had a few doctors who have been genuinely concerned, but most of the time, I have found this to be lacking”. Charlie, a second-year student, adds that, “People can be quite dismissive, although if you really push them to help, they will”.
This is not a problem strictly confined to Bristo Square. These concerns regarding student healthcare are shared by young people all over the UK. Catherine, a nineteen-year-old student in Nottingham says: “I was pretty ill last year and went to the health centre over and over again, only to be told to just put up with it. They basically weren’t interested. When I went home I saw my family doctor who told me I should have been sent for scans months ago.”  Jo, a second-year medical student, had similar problems. After going to her university health centre as an emergency patient, she was seen by a nurse “who was extremely patronising and completely ignored the fact that I have a past history of serious infections which are quite severe if left untreated”. She feels that she “wasn’t taken seriously enough and ended up spending five days unable to move”.
In addition to this, in my personal experience, the issue is not restricted to student health centres. When both  a friend and I were admitted to A&E on separate occasions, as soon as it was established that we were students, the first question we were asked was whether or not we had been drinking. In my case, I had gone in following a head injury at work, and found myself quickly brushed off as a time-wasting student on a Saturday night, only to find that my symptoms worsened significantly due to lack of medical attention or advice. As a result, I had to be admitted to hospital several days later, missing important classes. I, like many others, could not help but feel that the fact that I am a student influenced the attention I received.
This is not to say that credit shouldn’t be given where it is due. University health centres arguably do put up with a lot from students, and if we are seriously ill, more often than not, we do receive adequate help and support. A first year student who fell very ill in her first term at university says: “The University Health Service really was very good whilst I was sick. The doctor took me seriously enough and was very thorough in my assessment, and I even received phone calls to check on my progress in case my symptoms worsened and I needed hospital attention.” Another student, who prefers not to be named, stated that “I was pleasantly surprised when the doctor I saw recently was so understanding – they seemed to genuinely concern for my well-being.” The University Health Centre states that it “makes every effort to maintain a good service”.
Despite this, widespread dissatisfaction suggests that being taken seriously is a big concern for students when it comes to their health. The question one must ask though is: why is it that we often feel as though we are not being taken seriously? Many students have adopted this attitude as a result of negative experiences, as many of the examples above show. It is natural that in all healthcare environments mistakes will inevitably be made from time to time, but surely that should not be impacted by preconceptions and prejudices about university students. Perhaps it is these preconceptions and stereotypes which can alter the attitude of healthcare professionals, along with the rest of society.
So does this mean that we are prescribed to four years of potentially unfair, blinkered medical attention? One would hope not. But if we collectively and continually ignore advice about nutrition and binge-drinking, exercise and sleeping, it may be fair to say that such prejudices are not wholly unfounded. This by no means makes them right, but perhaps if we were to take more responsibility for our own health, there would be no excuse for people to doubt our sincerity, or the authenticity of our concerns. If we as students want our healthcare to be taken seriously, maybe the best medicine is persistence in proving that when it comes to our health, we take it seriously too.

[Originally published 12/01/2011 http://www.studentnewspaper.org/features/491-a-bitter-pill]

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