Chronic Illness and College Planning

Key Facts
  • Learn about your health insurance coverage
  • Make an appointment with your health care providers before you leave for college and schedule follow-up visits during semester breaks
  • Be sure to fill any prescriptions before you leave for college
  • Check out campus resources for students with disabilities
  • Young men's version of this guide

group of students

Planning for college is a time filled with challenges and excitement. College life opens the door to personal growth and independence. It’s a stage in your life that can be difficult, since you may be making decisions on your own for the first time. However, it can also be a happy time, a chance to make new friends, try new activities, learn new things, and for some setting up a home away from home. There are many things to consider when planning for college if you have a chronic illness.

Should I be concerned about my health insurance coverage?

Yes! It’s important to know exactly what kind of health insurance coverage you have and whether visits outside your network are covered, the amount of the deductible that you have to meet before the insurance company pays for visits, co-pays (often very high with Emergency Room visits. For example, some insurance policies may provide coverage only until you are 18 or 19 years old. Other policies may provide coverage to age 26.  Billing information on procedures and visits called an EOB (Explanation of Benefits) may be sent to your parents even for confidential services; many groups are working to change these procedures but it’s good to plan ahead.  Ask your parents how long you will be covered and what is considered to be “in network” versus “outside network.”  You may want to contact the insurance company yourself to understand the co-pay, deductibles, and more. You should check with the admissions department at your college to see if you need to buy an additional “student insurance policy” while you are a student there. If you aren’t covered by your parents’ insurance while at college, make sure you sign up for a special “student insurance policy.”

Before you leave for college, or as soon as possible, ask your insurance company to send you a summary of your benefits or ask them the following questions:

  1. How long can I expect to have insurance coverage? (For example: Up to what age am I covered? Do I need to be a full time student to be eligible for full coverage?)
  2. Does the policy cover emergency services or check-ups out-of-state?
  3. Does the policy require that I tell the insurance company within a certain amount of time if I use emergency services?
  4. Is there a waiting period for any services?
  5. Do I have to meet a deductible before I’m covered?

What do I need to know about the health services at college?

You will need to find out:

  • When the health center is open.
  • Who you can talk to if you have any issues related to your health needs.
  • How to reach someone if you have concerns or questions.
  • If there is a health care provider at the college health center that has experience in caring for people with your medical concerns. (If so, get the name and number before you need it).

In case of an emergency or if you need care that your health service can’t provide, you should know the location of the closest hospital to your college. Find out what kind of services are offered and if students are usually transferred to another hospital if more specialized care is needed.

What should I do before I leave for college?

  1. Make an appointment with your health care provider(s) before you leave for college. Talk about your concerns and your symptoms. Having a plan for when you experience symptoms will give you control and comfort.
  2. Be sure to have prescriptions filled with enough refills to last until you return to your health care provider for a follow-up visit or a way to contact your HCP if refills are needed in the interim.
  3. Schedule follow-up visits with your health care provider ahead of time so you can be seen during semester breaks.
  4. Obtain copies of recent operative reports, discharge summaries or other recent medical care from the hospital where you were treated or from your health care provider (if applicable). Put these documents in a folder and bring it with you to college with your important papers. You may also ask the Health Center at school to keep the information in your file if they have the ability to save paper or electronic medical records.

Should I find a health care provider near my college?

If you are going to a college that is far away from your home, check with your health insurance coverage to see if the insurance company covers other health care providers (primary care, specialty visits, immunizations, contraception and reproductive health concerns). You may decide that having a local health care provider would work best for you but make sure to see what your options are. Your primary care provider at home may be able to help you find a health care provider (HCP) in your college area that has expertise with taking care of people with your illness. It is best to try to schedule an appointment with your new health care provider before you start classes so you can establish a relationship.

You can help the communication among all health care providers involved in your care by giving them a list of all your medical providers, and a brief description of their roles in your health care. Include telephone numbers, fax numbers, addresses, and email contact information, if appropriate. Provide them with copies of any important medical records, including notes from any operation(s), and a list of medication(s) you are taking. Be sure to tell your new provider if you have ever had any side effects or allergic reactions from any medication(s).

Should I talk with my professors about the effect of chronic illness on my life?

Some students find that talking with their professors about their health concerns is helpful. You may feel awkward at first about approaching your professors. However, most professors appreciate students who talk to them early on in the semester if there might be a problem that could potentially affect learning. If you have trouble with your courses because of illness, you should talk with your professor(s) again. The longer you wait, the more overwhelmed you may become. You don’t have to give specific information unless you want to. You can simply explain that you have a “chronic illness”.

Is there anyone else I should talk to?

It can be helpful to have 1-2 designated people in your college’s Health Center as your “liaisons” — a person to whom you can go to when you need medical assistance and another person who can offer you emotional support. They may likely be able to offer guidance if your illness interferes with your academic performance.

What are some ways to deal with my college workload?

Learning to use the course syllabus to your advantage can be helpful in dealing with your college workload. The syllabus lets you know what is expected of you for each class and allows you to plan your course work accordingly. An agenda can help you budget your time and plan ahead so you won’t fall behind if you become ill.

Taping lectures and then taking notes later can help if you have trouble concentrating in class. You will need to make time for listening to taped lectures sometime after class. If you can’t make it to class, ask a friend to tape the lecture for you. Most colleges also have resource centers that provide a variety of services to help students deal with heavy workloads.

What else should I know?

Many colleges have “disability services”, but they may vary in terms of the services they provide. Look on the web or in a college catalog under “disability services” to see if your college has resources for chronically ill students. See what services they can offer if you get sick, such as help with note taking, extensions on test and papers, food service help for dietary needs, special housing, or transportation needs.

Make the most of your college experience! Preparing ahead when you have a chronic illness helps you to advocate for yourself and know what resources are available.