There are some things that seem perpetually destined to serve as the scapegoats and repositories of ill will at any school--whether or not they merit it. Here at Harvard, the popular targets are the Freshman Union, Yale University and UHS. The multitudes of second-hand horror stories about our health service need to be balanced out by those of us who are pleased with the competent and friendly service that UHS provides.
My own personal experiences differ greatly from those horrors flushed out in great detail on the pages of The Crimson. My tale does not involve unfeeling physicians or misdiagnoses. Coming to Harvard, I had been referred by my doctor at home to an associate of his in Boston; I had planned to have no involvement with UHS at all. As a courtesy, my doctor informed UHS of my record transfer to another hospital. Within days, UHS had contacted him, informing him that if we were willing, it would be more than happy to take me as a patient. They pointed out that it would be inconvenient and silly for me to have to go into Boston each time I wanted medical service.
Given this initiative, my record was transferred to UHS. When I arrived on campus as a freshman, my parents and I visited the health service, where we met my primary care physician. He was enthusiastic, told us all about his background, answered all sorts of questions we had about the capabilities of the place, gave us a tour of the entire building and seemed genuinely interested in establishing a close personal and professional relationship with me and my family. Coming from Canada, and having heard my own horror stories about the state of American health care, this first visit set my mind at ease and made me believe that I was in good hands. I would not be disappointed.
For the past two and half years, the service I have received from UHS has been nothing short of exemplary. Moreover, other students whom I have known share my satisfaction with the service. It's funny that one always seems to read about UHS horror stories, but never hears about them first-hand. For example, Nancy Raine Reyes, in her editorial berating UHS ("Harvard's Health Crisis," Opinion, Dec. 14, 1994), comments that she and her friends "don't feel like we are going to a friendly place where we will be treated with the respect and sincerity that any individual deserves--let alone receive quality health care." This doesn't sound like my UHS.
Whenever I call my doctor, his assistant recognizes the sound of my voice on the telephone. If I am feeling ill, I can often see him on an hour's notice, usually at my convenience. He is thorough and thoughtful, and I consider him to be a friend. He is interested in more than just my medical condition; he always checks to see how my classes are going, how my family is and whether I have any questions to ask him. We talk about the goings-on in the College, recent events, and our extracurricular activities. He is terribly proud about and always shows me the latest state of UHS' computerized record-keeping and diagnostic systems. He's even e-mailed me. He acts with authority and always carefully explains his reasoning for his diagnosis and treatment. In short, I have always gotten better--not worse--by going to UHS.
My sophomore year, I was stricken with a very bad stomach virus, not unlike the one that recently plagued the Freshman Union. I was unable to stand, could not stop vomiting and was running a fever. It was the beginning of a long weekend, and I called the UHS urgent care clinic. I was escorted by car to UHS, where I was examined and admitted with comfort and efficiency. I spent two nights in the Stillman infirmary hooked up to an intravenous unit. My doctor came to check on me every day that weekend, explained what I had and told me how we would remedy it. It was as pleasant a stay as I have ever had in a hospital. I found that every action taken was competent, justified and driven by a strong desire to make me comfortable and to speed my recovery.
When I read the tales usually associated with UHS and a bit of information about the tellers, I become quickly convinced that UHS is like most of Harvard: what you get out of it depends on the attitude you take going into it. The fact that some Harvard students do not have, and never try to obtain, primary care physicians speaks volumes for their attitudes going in. If quality health care is something one values, it is foolish not to invest the time to do something as basic as securing a doctor who is familiar with one's case. Showing up randomly at a hospital with no previous contact seems a sure way--in any hospital--of being shuffled back and forth.
UHS is responsive to the concerns of its community. The Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) is one way to make students' concerns heard: UHS also has a Patient Advocate to investigate complaints. Unfortunately for UHS, it is all too trendy nowadays to publicly create and decry the ineptitude of our health service, and in an even greater leap of logic, to cast it as mirroring a general health care crisis in the United States.
If there is a crisis, it is in the insuperable gap between expectation and effort. The provision of health care is by nature personal, and needs to be thought of and developed in that same way. Those who view receiving medical services in the same manner as being served at a fast food drive-thru window expect a bit too much for the effort they put in.
When Reyes writes that "it is just time that we all realized that as Americans we must face the scarcity of experienced and caring physicians who are concerned with the sick in this country," she lets the burdens of her own isolated case weigh too heavily upon the state of the nation. To expect to be treated like more than a stranger at UHS, one must take the time to introduce oneself and get to know one's way around. I did, and UHS has proved to be as familiar, as friendly and competent as my doctor back home.
Patrick S. Chung is a columnist for The Crimson.