Does your tummy hurt? -

Does your tummy hurt?

Gastrointeritis: symptoms may include a drastic lack of preparation for exams.


When a student goes to the doctor and complains of vomiting and stomach pains with no specific cause there’s a catch-all term that readily applies. Doctors call it gastrointeritis, a diagnosis that’s familiar to professors and instructors everywhere. So the doctor scribbles this word on a medical form of some description or other, and just like that the student has his or her “get out of exam free” card.

Students do occasionally become ill. And sometimes illness is badly timed and affects exams, midterms, and assorted deadlines. But this whole regime of medical notes is absurd and hypocritical and what’s more everyone knows it. The students who make a habit of such things know darn well they can get a note based on non-specific symptoms (i.e. “my tummy hurts”) any time they like. They even know which clinics to go to and how much they’ll charge. The doctors aren’t remotely qualified to evaluate any student’s ability to write an exam or complete an assignment while ill and still they’ll produce a note on the subject. And the administrators who require this exercise and the professors who receive the notes understand that 90 per cent or more of the claims are bogus, yet we continue to play the game by the agreed upon rules.

Again, the major problem here is the mistaken belief that doctors are qualified to judge whether or not a student is healthy enough to sit an exam. They are not. They receive no such training and any doctor will freely admit as much. When I was involved in Workplace Safety and Insurance work I had the opportunity to review a variety of documentation relating to injured workers and their ability to perform various tasks and jobs. Doctors who do this stuff for real are highly specialized and they spend a lot of time evaluating their patients before making a report. Even then their work is subject to doubt and controversy. It’s very subjective. So there is no way a family doctor, on the basis of a ten minute discussion, can genuinely report on a student’s ability to get his or her school work done. The diagnosis of gastrointeritis is nothing more than a repetition of the student’s claim about vomiting and stomach pain. There’s no possible test to verify these symptoms.

None of this is meant to suggest that I’m out to punish the poor “sick” students. Common wisdom accepts that students don’t really benefit from blowing off tests, from pushing deadlines, and from deferring exams. They get some relief in the short term, yes, but they only delay their problems. They do make more work for their instructors and that is kind of annoying at times. But they aren’t “cheating” in the sense that they gain anything. So the obvious solution is just to take students at their word and accept the stupid forms. I find myself doing it just as so many instructors have done so before. But it’s still a ridiculous exercise.

A very wise administrator once pointed out to me how truly stupid this all is by making this observation. The students who are genuinely sick don’t benefit significantly from seeing a doctor. The treatment for vomiting, stomach pains, and general flu-like symptoms (in other words, actual gastrointeritis) is just bed rest and fluids. Dragging yourself to a walk-in clinic and sitting around for a couple hours waiting for a note is just about the worst thing you can do. And on top of that, we’re just wasting doctors’ very valuable time with this pointless crap, by turning them into gatekeepers for an academic regime that needs to maintain the illusion of scrutiny. Surely their time could be better spent treating people who are actually ill.

For some this may come as news. If you never realized before how easy it is to get a doctor’s note, well, now you know. But it still isn’t in your interests to do it, so I wouldn’t recommend suddenly becoming “ill” the next time there’s a test. And for those who knew this already, you might as well be aware that we know it too. We know which doctors and clinics you are going to and we know exactly what you’re saying to them and we know how empty the process really is. We just don’t know what to do about it–aside from ensuring that the make up tests are harder than the originals and that no one (including the genuinely ill) ever derives any advantage from the process.

Sometimes, the system just doesn’t work very well for anyone. It makes my tummy hurt.


Questions are welcome at Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.