I am seeing a 52-year-old male in my jail medical clinic who
was booked yesterday on a felony DUI charge.
He says he drinks “a lot of beer” but denies having a drinking problem. He is cranky and not really cooperative. He does not want to be here. However, the deputies tell me that he did not
sleep much last night and did not eat breakfast. I note that he has a mild hand tremor and a
heart rate of 108. According to the
clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol–revised version (the most
common tool used in the United States to assess the severity of alcohol
withdrawal since 1989) my patient needs no treatment for alcohol withdrawal. But this is wrong! In actuality, my patient is experiencing
moderate withdrawal and should be treated immediately and aggressively.
Using CIWA is like
using a wrench to pound in a nail. It
can be done, but it is not really efficient or accurate. A different tool (a hammer) could drive the nail
much more quickly and effectively. CIWA is simply not the right tool to assess
alcohol withdrawal. We should be using
I recently published the official position paper of the American College of Correctional Physicians (ACCP) on the treatment of Hepatitis C in incarcerated patients (found here). However, some state legislatures (and others who which authorize funds for inmate medical care), have been reluctant to fully fund Hepatitis C treatment. Because of this, ACCP has formally approved the following Position Paper to encourage full funding of HepC treatment among incarcerated inmates.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have been hearing about the threat of a Corona virus pandemic. Every day, the evening news anchor breathlessly gives an update of the number of new cases, the number of new countries affected and the number of new deaths. You probably already know that this disease was originally found in China. What you may not know (but you should if you work in corrections) is that Chinese prisons were especially hard hit. This disease spreads most rapidly where people are enclosed together, like nursing homes, cruise ships and prisons. If this disease gets a foothold in the United States, correctional institutions are likely to suffer.
Penicillin is miraculous. It was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming (founding the modern era of antibiotic medicine) and is still the most common antibiotic prescribed in my jails. The dentist and I use Penicillin VK as our preferred initial agent for dental infections. I prescribe PCN VK, as well, for strep throats. I use amoxicillin occasionally for sinus infections and UTIs and even amoxicillin/clavulanate (Augmentin) occasionally.
Because penicillin is so useful (and inexpensive), I hate to hear the words “I’m allergic to penicillin.” If a patient with a dental infection can’t take penicillin, for example, the dentist commonly prescribes clindamycin, which is expensive, a pain to administer three times a day and has potentially bad side effects. I have seen more than one patient who developed C. difficile after getting a broad-spectrum antibiotic because of a reported penicillin allergy–probably unnecessarily!
This problem is pretty common since about 10% of the adult population will report a penicillin allergy. However, research has shown that, when tested, more than 90-95% of patients who state that they have a penicillin allergy really do not. These patients can be harmed by giving them an inferior antibiotic more likely to cause them harm than plain old penicillin.
The test most commonly used to gauge true allergic status is Penicillin Skin Testing (PST). No jail or prison that I know of does skin prick tests. We also don’t refer patients reporting penicillin allergy to an allergist for testing. We just groan and prescribe an inferior antibiotic.
However, this could potentially change based on research published this year on the safety and efficacy of “Direct Challenge” penicillin allergy testing. Direct challenge means giving a low-risk (this is important) patient an oral dose of whatever penicillin you want to prescribe and observing them for an hour for an allergic reaction. This has been done in studies and has been reported to be safe and effective.
Through many years of experience in correctional medicine, I occasionally have come up with a speech or dialogue that works especially well with patients; a speech which I then use over and over again. One of these speeches is one I use to get patients to take fewer NSAIDs.
I have found that many correctional practitioners, especially in jails, do not understand the license requirements of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and, as a result, do not have all of the DEA licenses that they are legally obligated to obtain.
Take, for example, a correctional
physician that we will call Dr. K who is employed full time a a large urban
jail and has had a DEA license for that jail for many years. On the side, she also provides medical
services to three other smaller jails, where she does clinics once a week. The
question is whether her one DEA license covers her activities at the other
jails. Dr. K has always thought that she
only needs one DEA license—just like she only needs one Driver’s License—and it
will cover all of her activities.
But the real answer is, “No,” Dr. K is
not in compliance with DEA regulations.
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:
I work at a prison and your blog has been such a resource for our unique niche of medicine. There’s nothing like practicing “behind the walls!” . . . Recently I’ve been incorporating more conversations about functionality and short-term/long-term goals and visits are mostly positive. However, there are the difficult patients . . . wanting to bargain “well if you’re not going to do anything, can I have an extra mat?” Or “Can I have a bottom floor restriction?” “Transfer me then!” “Give me insoles.” …and other requests like this. How do you recommend I come to an agreement with these patients that are difficult to have conversations with? . . . If by the end of the appointment we do not come to some sort of agreement, they end up right back in sick call with the same complaint. Then the cycle repeats. KR
Imagine, if you will, a nurse who is assigned to take care
of 50 patients on a medical floor—by herself. Clearly, this is an impossible
task. There are just too many patients
for one nurse to adequately monitor. But
this nurse gamely does her best. Now let’s
say that there is a bad outcome and an investigation. Even if the understaffing problem is
recognized, it would be easy—and tempting–to scapegoat the nurse, especially
if there was no intention of fixing the staffing problem (“We can’t afford to
hire more nurses!”) Instead, the
scapegoated nurse would be replaced by a new nurse, who, once again, would be
expected to care for 50 patients.
Such were my thoughts when I read this article about the
problems with the medical care for inmates in the Illinois prison system (found
The article says that there have been so many problems with medical care in the
Illinois prison system that a class action lawsuit has successfully forced Illinois
to make sweeping changes to the prison medical system. What is not mentioned in the article is that
similar lawsuits have happened before in other states and will happen