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From David Skorton

The Expanding Role of University Health Services


From the old Sage Infirmary halfway down the State Street hill to the current Gannett Health Services on Ho Plaza, student health care at Cornell has come a long way—not only in terms of proximity to the center of the campus, but in the complexity and scope of what we seek to do.

There have been enormous changes in the missions of student health services—nationally and at Cornell. Some students today come to college with significant health issues that might have precluded their attendance even a decade ago. They may need help in managing complex conditions such as asthma, autism-spectrum disorders, chronic depression, and eating disorders, and university health centers are working to meet their needs.

Under the leadership of Vice President Susan Murphy ’73, PhD ’94, Janet Corson-Rikert, MD, executive director of Gannett and associate vice president for campus health, and their superb team, our health center is recognized as a national leader for its comprehensive approach to student health and well-being. Like many other university health centers, Gannett provides abundant Web-based and print materials and partners with colleagues across campus to promote balanced living, with attention to nutrition, fitness, stress reduction, and sleep. Gannett staff also work collaboratively to address high-risk drinking and drug use, offer bystander education programs, and provide education and support for those affected by behaviors such as hazing and sexual violence.

David Shorten

Photo: Robert Barker / UP

With many international students coming to Ithaca and a growing number of domestic students spending time in other countries, Gannett must also be prepared to address global health threats such as MERS and avian flu. Counseling and support services are also available to students (or groups of students) who are affected by traumatizing regional or international incidents such as earthquakes, floods, or political unrest.

In addition, the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, managed by Gannett professionals, offers consultation and personal support to employees, retirees, and postdocs. Other employee services include travel shots and other immunizations, as well as physical therapy and occupational medicine. I have gotten excellent advice and care from Gannett for my own international travel.

In 2012, Gannett became one of the first university health services in the U.S. to be certified by the National Committee for Quality Assurance as a “patient-centered medical home”—where “a team of health professionals collaborate to provide high levels of care, access, and communication, care coordination and integration, and care quality and safety.” And it recently became one of the first university health services to be recognized by the Jed Foundation, a national organization seeking to reduce suicide rates among college students, for its comprehensive approach to mental health.

But Gannett has been strained beyond its physical limits to accommodate today’s students. While the student population on the Ithaca campus has increased by only about 30 percent since the clinic’s last expansion in 1980, visits have increased by 250 percent, from 40,000 in 1980 to more than 100,000 last year. Waiting rooms are often crowded, staff share cramped office space, and patients who might otherwise be treated on campus are transferred to hospital emergency rooms for lack of observation space.  

Gannett has made efforts, within current constraints, to relocate some key services—including physical therapy, business services, health insurance support, and some counseling services—to other locations, but there has been a need for a facility upgrade and expansion for several years. Last summer this effort received a wonderful boost from Robert Harrison ’76, chair of the Board of Trustees, and his wife, Jane, who made a lead gift of $5 million in support of the $55 million project that we plan to complete by 2017.

By making improvements to Gannett, Cornell will continue to provide the comprehensive care fundamental to student success and achievement. In the process, we will continue to teach students how to manage their own health care and reinforce the healthy habits that will continue to serve them well, long after Cornell. As Professor Glenn Altschuler, PhD ’76, and I wrote in a recent Forbes blog, “Going beyond providing medical and mental health care and shaping the environment through a comprehensive public health approach, including prevention and education, is complicated and difficult. But these innovations pay off in healthier and more successful students and, in the long term, a healthier adult population.”

I invite you to stay in touch as plans for the much needed expansion and further evolution of Gannett Health Services move forward.

— President David Skorton