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As Cornell works to reduce its COVID-19 cases, some students with other medical concerns struggle to get care.

April 2, 2021

With COVID Patients a Priority, Students Struggle to Find Cornell Health Appointments

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While Cornell Health has spent the spring semester prioritizing coronavirus patients, some students with non-COVID medical issues say they have struggled to find immediate appointments.

According to Hannah Kareff ’23, a patient navigator at Cornell Health, when Cornell reports virus clusters, there are often fewer appointments available for non-COVID patients. 

The Cornell Health website states that the health center is available any time for phone consultation to help students get the care they need for physical or mental health concerns, including a 24/7 mental health support service. But some students said they still had difficulty getting care.

A Cornell sophomore, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for privacy, described that after unexpectedly fainting, he struggled to make a virtual appointment on the Cornell Health website.

At the time of this incident, Cornell had recently reported a COVID-19 cluster. The Statler was filling up, Cornell Health was completely booked and there were no available appointments for the next two days. He added that the website was difficult to navigate, making it even harder to get care.

“It was honestly a little tough just to get a virtual appointment, because there are a lot of loops you have to jump through,” the student said. “The web portal is not very user friendly, and took me about 15 minutes to figure out exactly what to do.”

Kareff has first-hand experience with the Cornell Health appointment schedule. As a patient navigator, Kareff takes the temperatures of patients when they arrive, makes sure they filled out the Daily Check and walks them to their appointments.

According to Kareff, the health center currently runs separate units for those with COVID symptoms and for patients with other unrelated medical problems. Kareff said that while clusters do affect Cornell Health, COVID-19 in general has also caused fewer health center workers to be available to handle emergencies.

“There used to be some nurses working triage where [a patient] could just come in whenever, whereas you cannot do that at all anymore,” Kareff said. “That lack of extra people hurts when there are emergencies that need to be handled quickly.”

Kareff said that sometimes she works with a nurse who is assigned to be a patient navigator for the day, instead of being on duty to treat patients, which she said she believes is not the best way for Cornell Health to use its resources.

“We’ve had people come in with cuts and stuff that need to be seen right away,” Kareff said. “The nurses always say how badly they feel because normally [patients] would be able to walk right in and get stitched up, but they’ve actually had to turn people like that away and make them go to urgent care.”

For emergencies, Cornell Health provides ambulance rides to the hospital for students on the Cornell student health plan without copay, but students on private health plans may have a copay. 

Beyond navigating appointment availability that fluctuates with campus case numbers, Cornell Health has also adapted other operations throughout the semester.

In early February following a case spike, Dr. Anne Jones, director of medical services for Cornell Health, wrote in a Sun guest column that the health center had rescheduled or canceled non-urgent medical services, such as immunizations and sexually transmitted infections testing, because “we are all hands on deck for COVD right now.”  

At this point, however, according to the Cornell Health website’s Care During COVID-19 section, students can now access some limited in-person services, including the pharmacy, radiology scans, COVID testing and some physical therapy and medical examinations. Telehealth services include primary medical care, counseling and nutrition services.

Kareff said she thinks one way to better attend to patients with emergencies would be for Cornell Health to find students to fill jobs that do not require medical training, allowing trained nurses to focus on actual medical cases.

This solution may have been helpful for Emma Fischell ’23, who said she was frustrated that Cornell Health was not responsive in helping her find the external health care center that would accept her insurance.

“I have my own insurance and I had to jump through many hoops to even find a place locally that would take my insurance,” Fischell said. “[Cornell Health] said that I would be receiving a call from the provider once I found one for them that fits my insurance, and I didn’t get a call even after a few days.”

According to Fischell, while her experience was a hassle, she has otherwise had a positive experience with Cornell Health.

“There have been a few different times when I needed to call [Cornell Health], and when it’s not an urgent issue I can usually schedule an appointment within the next week,” Fischell said. “The one time that it was an urgent issue I was able to talk to them on the spot.”  

Because of the varying availability of Cornell Health appointments as campus virus case numbers waver throughout the semester, Kareff emphasized the importance of scheduling in advance.

Cornell Health has been able to offer a range of medical services during the pandemic. However, when a spike in COVID cases arise, resources must be redeployed to address it. Cornell Health staff would reach out directly to a student whose medical concern could be safely rescheduled.

Correction, April 2, 3:48 p.m.: A previous version of this article said that ambulance rides were free for students, and contained an inaccurate quote regarding health services following a spike in cases. The article has been updated to reflect Cornell Health’s policies.