Kennedy: A new route to strengthen Medical Amnesty at Denison

By Laurel Kennedy 
Vice President of Student Development

“The Medical Amnesty policy is vital to the health of our campus and keeping people safe because without it there will be accidents because of the desire to not get the person in trouble.”

Those words were written by a student who had experienced medical amnesty.  This policy has had both the direct effects this student described and the indirect impact of increasing the likelihood of seeking help as a matter of human kindness.  But until this January, we didn’t fully realize the policy’s impact.

Last fall we engaged in many conversations about alcohol use, focusing on fluctuations over the last three years.  It turns out, though, that the most pertinent increase was not in the years we were looking at.

It was one year earlier.

In the fall of 2010, 29 students were transported to the ER.  We’ve talked a lot about that number—is it high, is it normal for a school like ours, etc.  That number dropped slightly in the Fall of 2011, and rose last fall.  That’s not news.

But this is: In the fall of 2009, a total of four Denison students were transported to LMH for alcohol impairment. And that was not an anomalous year.  Prior years had similarly low numbers.

What happened to change those numbers so dramatically?  The medical amnesty (MA) policy was implemented in the spring of 2010.

The jump from four to 29 is staggering by any measure, but especially when we think about the whiplash effect for those who were suddenly responding to campus emergencies at seven times the prior year’s rate. The fact that local authorities didn’t object to the demand on community resources much earlier than they did is a credit to their professional ethic of care.

ONE MEASURE TO CONSIDER: The increase underscores the anxiety that likely existed among students beforehand. Those who were uncertain about whether to call now found it easier to do so.  Maybe not all those who received medical intervention needed it, but students no longer had to be the arbiter of that decision.  The lowered threshold for intervention yielded twice as many calls, but every call represented a student we care about.

A second metric to consider is that students’ calls come early enough, in medical terms, that the response is usually moderate.  Three-quarters of students are taken to Whisler to be monitored. Once clearly stable, they return to their halls. Similarly, those transported to LMH virtually always return to campus after a few hours of receiving fluids and anti-nausea medication.

A third evaluative metric is what students who have received MA have to say.  Over three-quarters reported in a follow-up survey that MA allowed them to be receptive to alcohol education and to learn critical information about alcohol. Their claim that they’d be less likely to consume in an unsafe way again is confirmed by the data: a tiny minority have subsequent alcohol violations.

Our campus has made solid strides this year regarding alcohol.  The “No Regrets” campaign has been well-received.  Asking party hosts to be responsible for the wellbeing of their guests has pre-empted problems, largely because those hosts have worked in good faith to resolve early kinks in the policy. The good work of the Ad Hoc Committee on Alcohol & Its Effects may yield ideas as well.

But we’re not going to solve everything overnight and appreciate that we must address the community resource question. Recognizing the MA policy’s impact on local resources, is there a way to sustain our low threshold of intervention and high standard of care and reduce the burden on local EMS resources?

We think we can, by improving our campus medical response.  An Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) has joined our weekend Security and Whisler staff mix.  The EMT responds to alcohol concerns and makes a professional determination about students’ condition.

Having an EMT on staff permits faster assessment than we currently have. If the EMT says the issue is a critical emergency or if the student is combative, we’ll call the Granville squad with the same timeliness that we now do.  If the student should go to Whisler, Security will drive the student, as now happens.  If the EMT determines that student is not critical but should still go to the ER, the transport will be provided by a local ambulance company that we have worked with for years.

Should students do something differently to get help now?  No–do just what you have always done: call Security, call your RA. The change is at the response end.

Learning about the resource costs of our medical amnesty policy does not diminish our commitment to it.  On the contrary, it persuades us of how important the policy is to campus safety, whatever adjustments our research elicits.  But we also want to be responsible stewards of resources.  Solving this problem has provided an opportunity to act in clear alignment with goals that we all share: prioritizing student safety while being good neighbors.

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