Words matter. What we write about our patients in our medical notes to a great degree reflects how we feel about them. Our words also mold our future relationship with our patients. One good example cited by Jayshil Patel, MD in a recent JAMA editorial (found here) is the common phrase “the patient was a poor historian.” There may be many reasons why a patient is not able to answer our questions well, such as dementia, delirium or psychosis. In fact, the inability to present a cogent narrative usually is an important symptom of an underlying condition. “Poor historian” does not reflect this fact. To the contrary, “poor historian” implies that the patient is at fault for my poor documentation, not me! “Poor historian” leaves out that there are other ways for me to get a medical history (medical records, talking to family, etc). “Poor historian” also implies that the patient was deliberately not cooperative—even though perhaps I spent maybe two minutes attempting to get a history.
Many other common medical phrases also subtly disparage patients. Two good examples are the words “denies” and “admits” as in: “The patient denies drinking” or “the patient admits to IV heroin use.” The implication of these words is that we are engaged in something akin to a hostile cross examination where I forced the patient to “admit” (against their will) to drinking and I really don’t believe the patient who “denies drug use.” Words guide how we think about our patients, even if on a subconscious basis. When I use these words, I am saying that my patient and I are not on the same team.
In corrections, perhaps the single best example of a word that negatively influences our relationship with our patients is “inmate.”
I will be meeting a new jail patient with multiple medical
problems today in my clinic. I know this
much before I even meet him: He will
almost certainly be scared, especially if this is the first time he has ever
been to jail. He will likely be
suspicious of me. He may even be downright hostile. I know this because this is
the norm for correctional medicine. I can’t be an effective doctor unless I can
turn this attitude around.
Consider the situation from my patient’s perspective. Prior to seeing me, he was arrested,
handcuffed and driven to jail in a police car.
Once at the jail, he was thoroughly searched (spread-eagle against the
wall), fingerprinted and had his “mug shot” taken. His clothes were taken away and he was given
old jail clothes (including used underwear).
He was placed in a concrete cell.
Now he is summoned by a correctional deputy and told (not asked) to go
to the medical clinic.
He did not choose me to be his doctor. Though he doesn’t know anything about me, he
has no choice but to see me for his medical care. Not only did he did not
choose me; he cannot fire me or see anyone else. He may fear that I am not a competent doctor;
otherwise why would I be practicing in a jail?
This is the attitude that I have to overcome. How to do this is an essential skill for
correctional practitioners. And, of course, the single most important encounter
is the first one. A negative first impression is hard to overcome–and I am already
starting out at a disadvantage. What I
have to do in only a few minutes is convince my patient that I am a legitimate
medical doctor and that I care about him. I have learned in many years of doing
this that these things are essential:
Perhaps the strangest aspect of practicing medicine in a jail or prison is “comfort requests.” This is when an inmate comes to the medical practitioner asking for something like a second mattress, the right to wear their own shoes, a second pillow, a second blanket, etc. This, of course, never happens in an outside medical practice. When was the last time you heard of a patient asking for a prescription for a pillow? Yet such requests are extremely common in correctional medicine. You might think, “Well, just give them the second pillow—what harm can it cause?” But it is not that simple. Like every medical issue, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle these requests. To understand why, let’s consider the single most commonly requested comfort item in a correctional medical clinic: a second mattress.
My last post about MAT in jails generated a lot of excellent responses–so many, in fact, that I realized that my discussion of MAT in jails was incomplete. I would like to enlarge the discussion about the proper role of MAT in jails by responding to these comments. Before I do, I want to make sure that we are all looking at the issue from the same perspective. Please consider how MAT should be used in three different jails.
Today’s Post was written by Rebecca Lubelzyk MD. Rebecca works in the Massachusetts prison system. She is a past president of the American College of Correctional Physicians and the editor of CorrDocs, the official publication of ACCP. This article was originally published in CorrDocs.
I’m on a medical school listserve that publishes writings and academic accomplishments of faculty and students. One week, a mindfulness moment was added to address the stress that physicians feel. The well-intentioned addition brought forth a fairly online virulent discussion about the non-medicine stress that disgruntled physicians feel every day, and how a “mindful moment” will do little to change the extreme performance demands generally imposed upon our profession.
I followed the discussion peripherally but with interest. It was clear all the contributors were dedicated professionals who loved their patients and providing care to them and their families. However, the bitterness towards the insurance/compensation/financial system was prevalent.
How bad it was “out there” became even more apparent when I had a prospective physician shadow me in clinic for a day. I explained how there can be several benefits to correctional medicine (your “no show” rates are essentially nil, patients have their blood pressures and blood sugars checked by a nurse, diets, commissary purchases can be reviewed in detail, etc.) I expressly noted the unique challenges, including the requests for non-medical items or privileges as well as the negative attitudes one encounters when the patient doesn’t want to hear the word “no”.
The physician candidate surprised me, stating that it was the same on the outside. Continue reading →
This article was initially published on MedPageToday,found here.
I remember walking into one of my jails and seeing a patient on the floor of his cell twitching and shaking. “Don’t worry about him,” said the sergeant on duty. “He’s faking it.”
Boy, that spun me up! Nothing will make me more anxious than hearing “he’s faking” or its close cousin, “he’s malingering.” I hate and fear those words. Now, I know that medical personnel, both in my jails and in the emergency departments where I used to work, get upset when they think that they are being deceived or manipulated by a histrionic patient. But charging a patient with “faking it” is almost always a bad and dangerous idea.Continue reading →
This article was first published here on MedPage Today.
How safe is correctional medicine?
People naturally assume that working in a jail or prison is dangerous. “Aren’t you nervous about working there?” they ask me. What people have seen of jails on TV looks pretty rough! After all, that’s where they put the violent criminals, right? The problem is, it just isn’t so!
Jails and prisons are not dangerous places to work; to assume so is just one of many misconceptions people have about correctional facilities. In fact, my jail medical clinics have been a much safer work environment than where I worked before.
I have begun a new blog that is being published on MedPage Today entitled “Doing Time: Healthcare Behind Bars.” The difference between that blog and JailMedicine is the audience. JailMedicine is written for medical professionals already working in a jail or prison (bless us all!). The MedPage Today blog is written for medical professionals who have no idea what Correctional Medicine is all about. The first post of Doing Time follows:Continue reading →
You are seeing a newly booked patient in your jail medical clinic. He states he has been in jails before, many times, and is always given a second mattress and an extra pillow because he had surgery on his back many years ago. You note that the patient has not seen a doctor on the outside for many years, that the patient walks and moves normally and that he has a normal neurological examination. You tell the patient that medical does not give out passes for extra mattresses or pillows. The patient angrily erupts in a blaze of obscenities and threatens a lawsuit.
Manipulation happens when a patient wants something that they should not have (like an extra mattress and pillow) and will not accept “NO” for an answer. In my last JailMedicine post, I outlined the strategies patients employ in an attempt to entice or force practitioners to change a No to a Yes. This patient is employing the “threatening” strategy.
Verbal Jiu-Jitsu is the technique of deflecting and defusing manipulative confrontations. Notice that I did not use the word “defeating.” That is because the first and most important rule of Verbal Jiu-Jitsu is to remember that this is not a war or a contest! There should be no “battle of wills” between you and your patient. There is no winner or loser. Instead, you and your patient are having a conversation. The whole goal of Verbal Jiu-Jitsu is to avoid any kind of verbal battle.Continue reading →
One of the more common complaints that I hear from correctional practitioners (especially new practitioners) is “Manipulative patients are driving me crazy!” To be honest, I ran into a lot of manipulative patients when I worked in the ER, as well. ERs are the epicenter of narcotic drug seeking! But it is true that many of our patients in Corrections are especially skilled in manipulation. They have practiced this skill their whole lives and have become very proficient. Most people, including correctional professionals, are not naturally skilled at dealing with manipulation. This is often not a skill that we have needed before coming to work in a jail or prison. But once there, learning to manage manipulation is an essential skill if you want to be happy in correctional practice. I call the art of dealing with manipulation “Verbal Jiu-Jitsu.” In order to become a skilled practitioner of verbal jiu-jitsu, we must first start with an analysis of what “manipulation” actually is.
Manipulation in a medical encounter occurs when a patient wants something he shouldn’t have and won’t take “No” for an answer. If the patient wants something he should have-no problem! Or If the patient is told “No” and accepts that answer–also no problem!
So manipulation involves these two essential elements:
1. The patient wants something she should not have. This something could be an extra mattress, a special diet, gabapentin, an MRI, a referral off site–anything.
2. The patient does not accept “No” for the answer.
What comes after not accepting “No” for an answer is manipulation. Manipulation is the attempt to coerce the practitioner into changing a “No” into a “Yes.” Manipulation comes in many forms.Continue reading →