In January, USC unveiled its “wellness-to-go” machine in the lobby of King Hall next to the Starbucks at Café 84. The machine is stocked with over-the-counter pharmacy products, including emergency contraception pills, pregnancy tests, painkillers and thermometers. This vending machine, first proposed by the Undergraduate Student Government last year, helps students obtain accessible health products. Since it is open 24 hours a day and located on campus, the machine helps students access over-the-counter medications outside the confines of pharmacy hours. While the installation is a step forward in establishing greater accessibility to health and wellness products, the machine lacks the privacy and widespread presence necessary to make a significant change.
Though the FDA lowered the age requirement for purchasing the morning-after pill without a prescription to 15 years old in 2013, students still face barriers to accessing these pills on campus. The limited hours at Engemann Student Health Center on the weekends and the frequent obstacles in retail pharmacies off-campus curtail product accessibility in pharmacies. To combat this issue, this vending machine launched through a partnership between USC Student Health and USC Pharmacy to provide students with wellness and health products in a convenient and quick manner. The machine also offers emergency contraception medication at a lower price than retail pharmacies, which typically charge $40 to $52 per pill.
While cold treatments are less likely to elicit embarrassment or stress when purchased in public, students purchasing more sensitive products like pregnancy tests and emergency contraceptives may want more privacy, which USC’s “wellness-to-go” machine does not offer. The machine is intended to increase availability and decrease the stress and embarrassment students may experience when visiting health centers or drug stores. But due to its public location across from Webb Tower and in front of an oft-crowded Starbucks, it may not be as effective as anticipated. Students using the machine are bound to encounter multiple people who can view exactly which products they are buying. The public nature of the purchase disincentivizes many students who simply want privacy when using the machine.
Protecting student privacy can be improved by looking into to practices at other universities. At Stanford University, some wellness vending machines are installed in gender-neutral bathrooms. UC Berkeley’s vending machines are located in their recreational facilities, providing greater privacy in a convenient location. At both of these universities, student government officers reported positive responses, and students are able to access the machines out of sight from their peers without drawing attention to themselves. Additionally, this privacy does not risk convenience. If USC followed suit, it could greatly reduce the privacy concerns created by the “wellness-to-go” machine’s highly visible location.
USC can improve this program by installing more machines across campus, particularly near student housing, such as at McCarthy Quad, USC Village and Parkside. In time sensitive situations, machines must be readily available. Whether students are suffering from the flu or looking to quickly buy contraceptives, convenience is critical.
The “wellness-to-go” machine provides critical health care access to students, but USC must improve their impact and ease of use. Access to health and wellness products is crucial for students.