Healthier Gamecocks a long-held goal of new USC student health center

When ground is broken, probably in July, on a new, $27.5 million student health center at the University of South Carolina, it will be a big step toward a long-held university goal: healthier Gamecocks.

The four-story, 65,000-square-foot building is going up in the historic center of the burgeoning Columbia campus next to the Thomson Health Center behind the Russell House Theater and adjacent to the Thomas Cooper Library.

Right now, the Thomson center houses a pretty significant array of medical services for USC’s 30,000-student population, from general medicine and women’s care, to sports medicine, lab, X-ray, pharmacy and physical therapy.

The 36,000-square-foot facility the school has been using as its health center since 1972 – initially it was an infirmary – limits the university’s ability to expand services or add new ones, said Deborah Beck, USC student services executive director.

When the new health center opens as planned for the spring semester of 2017, all campus health services will be housed in the same general location inside the two buildings, which will be connected by a tunnel, Beck said.

The facility will be paid for with $13 million in bonds with the balance coming from student health center reserves, said USC spokesman Wes Hickman.

“This building is going to be a symbol that we are all Healthy Carolina,” Beck said, referring to the campus initiative 10 years ago designed to change the university’s policies and campus culture to reflect the importance of health and wellness.

About 64,000 patients use the aging center each year, she said. “With the volumes of patients that we see every year, it just makes it difficult to be as efficient and to expand our services as those students are continuing to come in,” Beck said.

Psychiatric services also are housed in the Thomson Health Center, though the university’s counseling services are housed several blocks away in the Byrnes building.

During the past couple of years, the center and USC have worked to become accredited as a “patient center medical home,” a designation Beck said that fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s university health centers have. That achievement means the center can treat patients holistically to include preventative medicine, health education and lots of health screenings.

“All our services are so comprehensive that we can do everything within that student health services, so (students) don’t have to be referred out to the community,” she said. Those kinds of holistic services are linked to greater student retention and higher rates of success, Beck said.

Student patient load is so heavy that university faculty and staff generally are not treated at the health center, though that too will improve with the new center, she said. The center has 170 staff members, including 13 physicians – all with board specialties in emergency, family, internal medicine, gynecology, psychiatry and pediatrics, Beck said.

Maintaining certification is a condition of employment, she said.

All the medical services currently administered in the Thomson center – general medicine, lab, X-ray, pharmacy, sports medicine, physical therapy, women’s care – will move to the new building when it opens, Beck said. But the new facility will have 36 examination rooms from the current 13. There also will be more procedure rooms to serve more patients.

Lab services, X-ray and pharmacy services will be expanded to include the ability to provide ultrasound services and more pharmaceuticals including over-the-counter, Beck said.

“We’ve been planning this building for about 10 years,” Beck said. “In fact, we actually asked students if they wanted this facility and they were all so positive about wanting the expanded services, that we’ve actually been using part of their health fees to help support this.”

Students pay $169 per semester in health fees, she said, and $23 of that has gone each semester to a health center reserves fund, Beck said. USC student government voted to have their fees used for the expanded health services.

Students were involved in planning the new building through focus groups, identifying the services they wanted and the nature of the building, Beck said, which will have a “biofilia concept.” That means the building will not only be a place for health care and prevention, but also a quiet place to study.

There will be lots of glass and the aim is for the building to be LEED certified. “Everywhere that we have been able to bring life – the outside to inside the building – we’re doing that,” including a living wall in the health center’s lobby.

“It’s all about health and wellness,” said Beck, who has been with university nine years. “We want them to see this as a building that will improve their overall health and well-being, and to be really good consumers of health care long after they graduate.”


Read the original story in The State.

Read more about the project here.

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