Safeguarding your college bound students’ health

Sending a child off to college is an emotional moment for almost every family. As parents drop them off, they are making sure they have their laptop, supplies, dorm furnishings, appropriate clothing and (admit it, kids) even a stuffy or two for emotional comfort.

One thing that should be on their list is making sure they have adequate insurance coverage and understand how the college’s student health system works if the need arises. And it will.  You may have students with medical issues that you know about, and this information will be helpful.

It’s estimated that about 20 percent of adolescents grapple with chronic conditions, the most common being diabetes, asthma, epilepsy and arthritis. In addition, mental stresses are very common. In 2021 the National College Health Assessment said that almost three-quarters of the students it surveyed reported moderate or severe psychological distress.

Then, of course, are the usual illnesses (colds, flu, COVID) and injuries. The chances are excellent that a student will have an encounter with student health services sometime in their first year.

Here are some of the ins and outs.


The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – known far and wide as HIPAA – keeps a health care provider from sharing medical information with unauthorized persons, and this can include parents! Once a child is 18, they are considered an adult and in charge of their own health care.

If the student athlete is injured, the school doctor won’t talk to the parents unless the student has completed a HIPAA form giving them permission – even if they are the ones footing the bill.  Parents can download a generic HIPAA form from the state in which the child will be attending school and get it signed now. They don’t want to be dealing with this in an emergency.


Under the Affordable Care Act, dependent children can stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, which is great. But not all health insurance plans are offered in every state, so parents will want to make sure that their child can use their insurance in the state where they’re attending school.

If they can’t, there are options, for example enrolling them in an insurance plan through the national Health Marketplace. For more information, visit

Another is to purchase insurance through the college. For example, let’s say your student is headed to the University of Michigan this fall. It offers a student health insurance in the Blue Cross/Blue Shield network. Last year, the 12-month premium was just under $2,300. Coverage includes primary care as well as behavioral health.


The mail-order pharmacy they are already using can ship a student’s medications to where they are, but it’s important to impress upon them that they have to reliably and responsibly take the meds they’re prescribed. This is particularly important with chronic conditions.

One of the most common medications in this age group is Adderall for attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Adderall is easily abused, and students have been known to share their meds, or even sell them, to fellow students.  Parents can’t control their every decision when they’re away at school, but this should be a topic of conversation over the summer.


Illinois state law requires college students to be immunized against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR); meningitis; and tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis (Tdap). To that list, I would add vaccines for influenza, COVID, Hepatitis A and B, HPV (human papilloma virus) and chicken pox. Why potentially expose them to an illness when it can be avoided?

Do you need a patient advocate?

Everyone needs a patient advocate – someone in their corner who can ask questions, take notes and ensure the patient gets the attention they need. I think it unlikely that the typical 18- or 19-year-old experiencing a health crisis would have the maturity to advocate for themselves. Parents may not be there to give their student the personal attention they may need to understand their treatment, speak with medical staff and schedule tests and appointments.

A private patient advocate could fill the bill by being the parents’ eyes and ears, speaking knowledgeably with medical staff and providing meaningful communication back to the family.

I’m not suggesting that every college student needs a private patient advocate, just that it might be a consideration in some instances. There are several resources for finding a patient advocate in the area where your child is attending school: Greater National Advocates ( and the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy ( to name two.

An illness or injury can make the emotional rollercoaster of college even scarier. A little preparation makes a difference.

Teri Dreher, RN, is a patient advocate based in Chicago., NShore Patient Advocates.  You may email her at