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Officials split on whether students need doctors’ notes

BY MADISON BENNETT | MARCH 02, 2011 7:20 AM

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It’s an age-old request: If a student misses class, the professor wants to see a doctor’s note.

But at the University of Iowa, whether students need to hand over written proof of their illnesses is unclear.

UI health officials implemented a policy in 1998 discouraging students from going to Student Health only to obtain an excuse form. And if a student does go in to get one, most of the time, the medical staff will refuse to write it.

However, faculty and administrators are split on the issue, and some recently met to discuss it.

“On one side, faculty want to make sure a student was absent for a good reason,” said Beth Ingram, the associate provost for undergraduate education. “On the other hand, if a student is actually sick with something that doesn’t require a doctor’s visit, it isn’t good for the student to go over to Student Health.”

Because some classes rely more heavily on in-class participation, Ingram said, officials decided to leave the determination up to individual departments. The university’s attendance policy dictates which absences teachers can deem “excusable,” but departments determine what documentation students need to provide to verify their illness.



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Helena Dettmer, the associate dean for academic programs and student development in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said faculty need to believe their students. “I tell our faculty we have to trust the innate honesty of our students,” she said.

A recent meeting in January included a small group of liberal-arts professors talking about the medical-excuse policy, but Ingram said they didn’t reach a consensus.

“Part of the problem is that it was a very small committee and after a couple of meetings we realized different departments have different needs,” Ingram said. “And we didn’t have adequate representation.”

At Student Health, employees typically do not write excuse forms for students unless it’s a special circumstance. Instead, they direct students to the “Absence from Class” form that students can fill out, listing their reason for missing class, whether they saw a doctor, and if not, to name someone who can attest to the illness.

The form for absence from class was used 363 times in February.

“Part of that process is to make sure there’s communication,” said Ann Laros, the interim medical director of Student Health. “If students say they’re ill, we need to learn to trust them.”

In certain cases, UI physicians will write a note saying they saw the person but will not specify a reason for the visit.

“We don’t feel like instructors need to know the details of their illness,” said Lisa James, the Student Health interim administrative director.

Overall, Student Health officials said, they don’t want healthy students coming in after an illness to simply obtain a form, nor do they want students who are still recovering to strain their systems by going to the clinic.

“It’s a waste of time for students to come over here when they’re not ill,” Laros said.

Lecturer Will Jennings, who teaches rhetoric, said he generally doesn’t require an official excuse form from a medical professional.

“If they miss a class, and they present me with that form, I’m not going to ask for a doctor’s note,” he said.

But missing assignments is different, said psychology Professor Michael O’Hara.

“If a student misses an exam, I usually require some formal documentation — but not so for class,” O’Hara said in an email.

Some students agreed doctors’ notes are not necessary for large lectures, but small classes require more verification of illnesses.

“For those classes, you can definitely tell when half of your class is gone,” said UI sophomore Katie Sturtz. “[Instructors] like to know if you’re excused [and] why.”


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