As the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Student Health clinic expands its services to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic, many UCSB students are speaking out against the clinic’s poor care quality via social media. Although many report positive experiences with Student Health, a growing number are voicing complaints about Student Health staff, describing rude or dismissive interactions when being examined.
Megan, a fourth-year international student, is one of many to come forward with her experience, describing a “rude and awful” encounter with an optometrist she saw through Student Health.
“[The optometrist] made me walk out of an eye exam without sunglasses or any [type] of protection,” Megan recalled. Despite bringing up her issues with light sensitivity and pain, Megan said that the optometrist laughed at her and dismissed her concerns.
“I had never done an eye exam before. We don’t do them where I am from,” said Megan. “[She] treated me like I was very dumb.”
Megan was vocal about her concerns on social media, posting about her appointment in a discussion thread on the UC Santa Barbara Reddit page. She was joined by other users who identified the optometrist as Dr. Heather Nichols, and reported similar experiences under Nichols’ care. One user described her as “extremely unprofessional,” encouraging students to file a complaint for Nichol’s dismissal.
The Bottom Line (TBL) interviewed an anonymous graduate student who also had a negative experience with Nichols, claiming that his interaction with her “left a bad taste in [his] mouth.”
After contracting pink eye in 2018, the graduate student saw Nichols when he went to Student Health for an examination. Nichols told the student that the irritation in his eye was caused by allergies. When the student asked Nichols if she was sure about her diagnosis, he recalled her “snapping back” at him.
“I couldn’t figure it out,” he said. “She took my tone as questioning her authority […] and I didn’t want to mess with that. I’ve been in situations like that before. I know that kind of personality.”
The encounter made the student wary of going to Student Health at all, similar to many other Reddit posters who sought Nichols’ care. Over two years after the incident occurred, the graduate student finally shared his experience after seeing one of the discussion threads made about Nichols.
“It’s why I dislike US healthcare,” the student said in an interview. “Growing up, I always had a distrust of the healthcare industry, especially being a woman of color.”
“I felt a little vindicated,” he said. “I realized it wasn’t just me, and I felt better about myself.”
The stirrings about Nichols on social media sparked three discussion threads on Reddit during the month of January alone. One thread speculates of Nichols’ removal from Student Health in mid-January, noting that Nichols is no longer listed under the medical staff on the Student Health website.
In an email sent to TBL, Student Health confirmed Nichols’ departure, although they did not disclose if Nichols resigned or was let go from her position. According to Eye Clinic Supervisor Ruth Solis, Nichols was no longer available for appointments as of early February. As of Feb. 7, the Student Health website also shows that the optometrist position is currently vacant.
In the email, Solis added that there is currently no one who can perform an eye exam at the clinic. Students interested in an eye examination will have to make appointments with other optometry groups in Goleta and Santa Barbara, which could result in out-of-pocket fees for many.
Despite the inconvenience, the graduate student who spoke to TBL approves of Nichols’ departure. “It [was] horrible bedside manner,” he said. “As a healthcare provider, you don’t do that. You provide a voice of calm. That’s what you do as a doctor.”
Other students on Reddit chimed in, noting that Student Health’s optometry clinic isn’t the only problem.
One anonymous third-year student told TBL about a negative experience with a hand specialist she saw at Student Health, although the student did not disclose the name of the doctor she saw.
After getting into a bike accident and splintering her finger in early 2020, the student sought treatment in Urgent Care. After two subsequent appointments, she was prescribed antibiotics and referred to the hand specialist for treatment.
Despite her finger being “so swollen” she could barely bend it, she says the specialist told her that there was “nothing wrong.” He continued to ignore her concerns, even when she repeatedly said she believed there was something lodged in her hand.
“He was really dismissive,” she said, recalling that the specialist used a “really aggressive tone.”
“I told him I felt like something was stuck in [my finger],” the student added. “[The doctor] said I just had to keep moving it and he just grabbed my finger and forced it down,” leading her to scream in pain.
“I couldn’t even bend it halfway on my own,” she said. “It just hurt a lot.”
Frustrated with her experience, the student resorted to removing the splinter by herself. At the time of removal, it had been in her hand for nearly a month.
“It’s why I dislike U.S. healthcare,” the student said in an interview with TBL. “Growing up, I always had a distrust of the healthcare industry, especially being a woman of color.”
The student pointed to the discrimination against women and people of color when receiving treatment, which has been well-documented in the scientific literature. One study published in 2012 suggests that African-American patients who reported pain were over 20 percent less likely to receive medication for it than white patients. A 2008 study showed that, on average, women waited 16 minutes longer than men in the emergency room, despite reporting the same set symptoms.
“[My experience at Student Health] kind of confirmed it for me, that [doctors] didn’t really care about my concerns,” the student said.
Reddit users have pointed out inconsistency within the UCSB Student Health clinic, with patient experiences ranging from excellent to painful. Although Megan, for instance, described her appointment with Nichols as “awful,” she also noted that every other staff member she has seen through Student Health was “marvelous” in their care.
“I’ve gone to Student Health a bunch of times and I have always had a pretty good experience there!” added Serena, a fourth-year undergraduate student. “I much prefer coming to [Student Health],” she said, due to the fact that many of the clinicians are “attentive” and “easy to talk to.”
“Experts have posited that compassion fatigue is a growing problem within the healthcare industry — particularly so during COVID-19, with widespread illness exhausting the empathy of many healthcare workers.”
“I feel like [many of the doctors] are very used to dealing with college student concerns, so […] I don’t feel as embarrassed asking certain questions,” Serena said. Although, she also admitted that her experience largely depended on the doctor she saw during her appointments. When she contracted strep throat, she recalls seeing a doctor who dismissed her concerns that it “was something [more] serious.”
“Most of the other staff that I see usually at least try to reassure me to calm down and are more polite,” Serena said — adding that she was a “bit of a hypochondriac.” “I just wished [the doctor] was a bit more empathetic about it.”
Andrea, a fourth-year undergraduate, agreed that her experience at Student Health largely depended on who she saw. She told TBL of “insanely rude” encounters by staff when getting lab work done, although she adds that her experiences with other doctors and nurses have been great.
“It makes me not want to go at all,” she said, describing the curtness of the staff when getting her blood drawn. “They don’t even warn you when they’re about to stick the needle in.”
Some think that the inconsistency within Student Health illustrates the larger issue of compassion fatigue, a phenomenon where those who are regularly exposed to others’ suffering, like healthcare workers, gradually lose their ability to feel empathy for others. Experts have posited that compassion fatigue is a growing problem within the healthcare industry — particularly so during COVID-19, with widespread illness exhausting the empathy of many healthcare workers.
Licensed family and marriage therapist Sherisa Dahlgren partnered with UCSB Counseling and Psychological Services to host an event about compassion fatigue on Monday, discussing its ramifications and strategies to prevent it when caring for patients.
“Individuals who work in helping professions often do so out of a deep commitment to making the world a safer, more joyful place for others,” said Dahlgren. “Yet, this often comes at a personal and professional price when high levels of exposures [sic] to the suffering of others becomes our normal, day-to-day experience.”
Several students, when asked if there were any improvements that could be made at Student Health, were quick to brainstorm ideas.
The graduate student, who spoke to TBL, said it would have been helpful for the clinic to have an official system to hear patient comments, which would allow students to report negative experiences and clearly identify areas of improvement.
“I understand that you can get flooded with comments or grievances about staff,” the student said. “But the challenge is to have better communication with the public.”
The anonymous third-year student added that she believed many negative experiences in the clinic could be lessened with better training, particularly multicultural training.
“There’s a long history of women and women of color being dismissed in healthcare,” she said. “Just watching a video is not going to help people be more compassionate.”