What to do if your College Student has a Medical Emergency


It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. A call from your child (or worse, a call from someone else) explaining symptoms or injury requiring immediate medical attention. Preparing ahead of time and having a few things at your fingertips  (like a HIPAA authorization form) will help you stay calm if your College Student has a Medical Emergency.

We received this kind of phone call from our son 3 years ago. It was 3:30 in the morning and he had awakened with shaking chills, fever, and terrible lower abdominal pain. Less than an hour later he had been diagnosed with an appendicitis and my husband was on the road for the six hour drive to be with him.

What to Do if Your College Student has a Medical Emergency

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, physician, or college official. Please do not consider this post as medical or legal advice or as an explanation of any school’s policies. Please contact the appropriate people for further clarification. 


Here are some steps to preparing for and handling, in the moment, a medical emergency involving your child who does not live near you:


Before your College Student has a Medical Emergency:

Make sure they have their health insurance card in an easily accessible place.

Either call your health insurer or carefully read the materials from your health insurer concerning seeking care in another city/state. Find out if there are “in-network” health care providers and facilities in the new college town. Our son is in another state, so fortunately, our health insurer allows us to seek emergency care anywhere and it will be classified as “in network” for the deductible and out-of-pocket portions of the bill. If there are “in-network” facilities where your child lives and your student goes somewhere else, you could be in for a large bill.

Consider executing a HIPAA release and a medical power of attorney with your child. Once your child is 18, you will need YOUR CHILD’S PERMISSION to access their medical information.  Hospitals and doctors are not allowed to discuss your child’s medical care with you without signed consent. I recently interviewed a physician about HIPAA forms and here is his take:

Every institution will prefer their own forms for HIPAA purposes, but it is a good idea for the person who will be making the decisions and/or paying the bill to have an executed HIPAA form on file to fax or e-mail if the medical provider/institution will not give you adequate information, especially over the phone. If the patient is unconscious, the provider will talk to the next of kin, but that can sometimes be difficult to determine. Divorces and other family situations can complicate “the next of kin” issue.

Tell your child to put you as the emergency contact and as a person with whom health care providers may share medical information when filling out ANY AND ALL medical forms.

Have your child fill our whatever forms they need to with the insurer before they go to college, so that you can discuss their bills with the insurer. Even though you are the “insured” and are paying the bills, an insurer is also not allowed to discuss their bills with you without their consent. This was a bit of an issue with us because our son needed to give notice within 24 hours of his emergency to get in network benefits. We ultimately got it straightened out and were given the correct benefits, but did have to argue a bit that we tried several times to call them. They were arguing that the notice had to be from our son!

Discuss with your child what campus clinics, urgent cares, free-standing ERs, and hospitals are available. Do you have an opinion about where they seek care?

If possible, select a local friend or family member, who can act as the emergency contact until you arrive.



Understand what a HIPAA and Medical Power Of Attorney Do and Do Not Do:

I have seen post after post and thread after thread with misunderstandings about HIPAA forms and Medical Powers of Attorney. These documents WILL NOT get you a call from a medical institution, the student’s dorm, or anyone else if your student is ill or seeks care. These forms will get you information WHEN YOU ASK FOR INFORMATION. 

There is not a place for you to file these forms on campus. You keep them with you and produce them should you ever need them to access information about your student.

A Medical Power of Attorney only goes into effect if the student is incapaciated and unable to make medical decisions for themselves.

As an adult, your student may also revoke your access to their medical information anytime they wish.

Remember: the student you send to college is just as much an adult in the eyes of the law as you are. It may seem crazy, but that is the way it is.


Communication with your student is everything

Discuss these issues with them before they go to school. Make sure they understand how limited your information will be without their cooperation. We have the kind of kids who call with every hangnail, but I have heard stories of kids who really want to adult and try to handle situations on their own that they really need help with.

Ask them to put you as the emergency contact on all of their forms, so if someone is looking for someone to call, they can contact  you.

Ask them if it would be ok for their roommate or other friend to call you if they are taken to the hospital or the friend judges it to be an emergency.

Assure them that whatever the issue is, they are not going to be in trouble for making you a part of a medical emergency even if the circumstances that led to the medical emergency are not something you would normally be happy about.

Try not to be too panicky or overly controlling when discussing these issues with your student. Most kids do not want surgery or serious testing without the support of their parents, but they may start to desire some privacy about mental health and other sensitive issues. Tell them that you trust them to call you when they need help.

What to do when you receive “the call”:

Determine what action your child should take when they call with “symptoms.” After 18 years, you are probably pretty good at interpreting your child’s voice and level of drama. Some kids will call hysterical because they have a splinter. Others will call and say, “I decided to jump off my raised bed and I fell on my arm. My arm is now a weird shape. Do you think I should show it to the pre-med student down the hall or do you think it is nothing?” (If it is just a splinter, send them to the first aid kit from The Best First Aid Kit for College.)

If you decide they should seek medical attention, remind them to take their insurance card with them and to PUT YOU AS THE EMERGENCY CONTACT and person to whom the doctor may give medical information.

Boys do not like to ask for help even if they are in incredible pain. But, depending on the situation, encourage your child to have a friend drive them. Our son drove himself to a free standing ER. The free standing ER made him call a friend to take him to the hospital. We are extremely grateful for the young man who came to his side at 4:00am.

The next step is the toughest: wait by the phone for your child or a doctor to call with news of what is wrong and what the next steps will be.

Find your HIPAA form in case you need it.

If you have a local friend or family member who can stay with your child until you get there, call them.

Plane, train, or automobile it to your child’s side.

Another mom’s experience (What if my child is unconscious?):

I recently interviewed my friend Rexann, who received this kind of call from an ER doctor. Her son played baseball for his college and had collapsed during a workout. He spent over a month in the ICU after a heatstroke and experiencing the breakdown of his muscles from a condition called rhabdomyolysis. He has since recovered thanks to the excellent care he received and the prayers of family, friends, and strangers far and near.

Rexann says they did not have an executed HIPAA document, but had no trouble receiving information from the doctors at the hospital even over the phone. The drive to the hospital was about 8 hours and she received information even on the way.

She had the same experience we did with her insurance company. They said they did not have permission to talk to her about her son because he was over 18. After repeatedly explaining to them that he was unconscious, they finally relented and talked to her about the financial side of things.

I also asked her if she had any advice for parents who find themselves in this situation. She said that there is no way to really prepare for the moment you receive that kind of call. As a sports mom she had dealt with many injuries and issues over the years and was not initially concerned to hear from an ER. Her only advice was to  stay calm because you will receive better information and the hospital staff will respond better to a calm person. 

Knowing What to do if your College Student has a Medical Emergency is a necessary part of the college preparation process. Neither you nor your student wants to be in this situation, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Take the necessary steps to be prepared.


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