Do Emergency Contact Cards Really Protect College Students When Emergency Strikes?          

By Laura & Janet Greenwald


Each September, a new crop of college students and their parents fill out a basic medical history and emergency contact card along with the rest of their admissions forms.  Once they’re complete, parents usually breathe a sigh of relief knowing that, in case of a sudden medical emergency or, in light of recent events, a natural disaster like Union University’s tornado or worse a school shooting, the college will have all the information they need to take care of their child.   

Or will they?   

If you think about it, whether the school has the information it needs, really depends on several different factors.  For example, how detailed is their medical history form?  Is it just enough information to help out in a minor medical emergency, or enough to save a critically injured student’s life?  Does the emergency contact form only have space for one emergency contact or several?  And while we’re at it, how often are the students required to their emergency contact cards and medical information?  Once a semester?   Once a year?   Never?  That depends on the university…

What kind of information do the cards contain?

First of all, no two college emergency cards are exactly alike.  Some ask a few basic questions, giving you a space or two for your most important emergency contacts, one space for primary care physician information, your insurance number and a very basic medical, allergy and vaccination history.  Other forms are several pages long, capturing everything there is to know about your medical history, multiple emergency contacts and information on every doctor your child has ever seen.

Whether the information on the card is effective for the student, really depends on the type of emergency.  If the student has broken his arm and is alert and talking, then having his regular doctor’s and insurance contact information at his fingertips, along with a list of allergies, is probably enough.

But let’s say that a student is hit by a car, or based on recent events, a stray bullet.  If she’s fighting for her life, her ER doctor needs to know everything she can about that student, from her medical history to prescriptions she’s currently taking that could interfere with her treatment.

When a hospital has to locate a medical history on a student who’s in critical information, but can’t reach the only emergency contact on their contact card, having alternate contact numbers at the hospital’s disposal, could literally mean the difference between life and death.

Where are the cards kept and how easily they can be retrieved?

Many universities split their emergency cards into two forms. The first form has the student’s basic “in case of emergency” information and contacts, which is usually kept in the registrar’s or admissions office.

The second form details the student’s medical history and is kept in the university health center.  Other schools have emergency contacts on an online system and the paper-based medical history filled away in an administrative office.

That’s fine if the student is dropping by the health center for a routine medical problem.  But if a student is taken to a hospital in an emergency, hospitals can’t access or use that information, until the school sends it over.   The school might not even know that the emergency or illness has occurred.  Once they’re aware of the situation, they’ll have to locate and pull the information, then send it over to the hospital.  Realistically the whole process could take hours – hours which that student might not have.  And if an emergency occurs after business hours, a hospital might not be able to access and use that emergency information, until the campus administration office opens, the next business day.  

How current is the information?

How often do university students update their emergency contact cards and medical information?  Once a semester?   Once a year?   Never?  That depends on the university.   In today’s world, things change quickly.  Just think about your own life.  How often do you have to update your Outlook or cell phone contacts?  If you’re anything like us, we update them every few weeks.   For college students, the world moves at an even faster pace. 

From potential emergency contacts (parents, relatives and roommates) to their own medical history, recent illnesses or prescriptions, things can literally change every day. Unless a student has immediate access to his emergency information whenever he need to update it, the information on it could be hopelessly out of date.   Updating information on the fly is something normal emergency contact cards just aren’t set up to do.

Does it serve the purpose for which it was designed?

That depends on the form’s availability and the needs of the students.  For a non-residential community college, limited information might be sufficient.  If a student is injured at a community college, the injury would probably occur during regular school hours and the college would be able to locate and transmit emergency information to a hospital as soon as they are notified about the accident.  But if a student becomes ill or is injured during night classes, having the student’s emergency information filed away in a closed administrative office wouldn’t be much help.   

For a residential university, a traditional emergency contact card and basic medical information form might not work at all.  Students are on campus twenty-four hours a day, with most medical emergencies occurring after school hours. 

Unless the university has administration or security personnel available twenty-four hours a day, with access to the student’s emergency information, it could take hours to locate and send a student’s emergency information to a hospital.  And if the emergency occurs after school hours, or worse, over the weekend, hours could easily turn into days. 

RAs – Your Student’s Link To Safety???

That’s why some schools have decided to give resident advisors the emergency contact information for the students on the dorm floor they supervise.  RAs copy or print the information and carry it around with them in a notebook in their back pocket. 

While there is a good chance an RA might find out about an accident or illness before the administrative office does, leaving such a crucial job to someone who is still a student themselves, seems questionable.

Who’s to say if the RA will even be in dorm when an emergency occurs.  Or if an accident takes place at a party or during a mass casualty situation, the RA could be right in the middle of the action himself and just as injured as the students in his care.    One other problem with this system is the idea of carrying around other student’s vital information in a notebook, which is easily lost and completely unsecured.

Do emergency cards work in a mass casualty situation?

When natural disasters and mass casualties occur at a university, students may have to rely on their own resources to survive, until disaster personnel arrive at the site or until emergency plans can be activated.  That makes perfect sense.  In a sudden emergency, universities must do what they can to secure all of their students as well as the campus, faculty and staff.

As much as they try, what a school can realistically do in a crisis, depends on the nature of the crisis. In a mass casualty emergency, disaster personnel or the records themselves, might not even be physically available.  Think about the Union University tornado, where entire buildings were destroyed.   Or Hurricane Katrina, where buildings, (along with the records within them), were not only badly damaged but uninhabitable for weeks or months after the disaster.

Even in an emergency like the Virginia Tech or NIU shootings, personnel are so busy dealing with the situation, that they might not have the resources to locate and transmit their injured student’s emergency information to a hospital. 

So, do emergency contact and health information cards work?   In short, no. 

Standard emergency contact cards are yesterday’s answer to a world that is changing by the minute.    

Keeping your students safe isn’t up to the university, it’s up to YOU! 

Emergency contact information is just ONE way to keep you and your college student safe.  We have many more...

How about Grab it and Go Forms to capture your student's medical history, insurance, financial and vital documents, that can be filled out by hand, or by computer, secured and ready whenever you need them?  Or customizable emergency action plans, dorm inventory, tips, checklists and  printable wallet cards.   Check out Don't Lose All Your Stuff At College Today!




Laura and Janet Greenwald, are the founders of The Next of Kin Education Project and Stuf Productions.  The mother & daughter team were not only instrumental in enacting three Next of Kin Laws in California and Illinois, but created the Seven Steps to Successful Notification System, which teaches quick, easy, next of kin notification skills for trauma patients to hospitals like Dallas’ Methodist Medical Center. 

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