Category Archives: Uncategorized

Effective Treatment of Heroin Withdrawal in Corrections

Imagine this: You’re practicing medicine and a patient comes to you with an illness. You make the diagnosis and then say to the patient, “I can see that you are very sick. And there is a highly effective treatment for your condition that would make you feel a lot better. It’s simple and it isn’t even expensive. But, you know what? I’m not going to give it to you! You’re not sick enough. Come back tomorrow. If you’re sicker tomorrow—well, if you’re sick enough—I will treat you then. But not right now.”

Crazy, right? We’d never do such a thing.

But . . . the problem is, we frequently do that exact thing with our heroin withdrawal patients. I’m not singling out correctional medicine practitioners here. I think that, in general, heroin withdrawal is treated better in correctional settings than it is in the community. Nevertheless, it is a fact that heroin withdrawal is often not properly treated in jails and prisons. I have seen it.

I believe that there are four main reasons that some facilities do not appropriately treat heroin (and other opioid) withdrawal. Continue reading

Medications at High Risk for Diversion and Abuse In Correctional Facilities

The practice of Correctional Medicine has many strange differences from medicine outside the walls. It took me a couple of years to get comfortable with the various aspects of providing medical care to incarcerated inmates. Of all of these differences, one that stands out in importance is the fact that many seemingly benign medications are abused in correctional settings.

Of course, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has established a list of drugs known to have potential for abuse and even addiction. The DEA even ranks these drugs according to the severity of this risk. Schedule I drugs carry the most risk, followed by Schedule II, and so on, all the way down to Schedule V, which are thought to have the least risk.

However, the drugs that we are talking about here are not on the DEA’s list. These are medications that are not abused (or, at least, not thought to be abused) in mainstream medical settings. But these drugs are, in fact, abused and diverted in jails and prisons.

The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but in my mind, it boils down to this: These are drugs that have psychoactive effects that mimic, to some degree, the effects of the drugs on the DEA Schedules. If you are addicted, or even if you just like to get high once in a while, and you can’t obtain your preferred drugs of abuse because you are incarcerated, these are the drugs that can serve as an alternative in a pinch.

It is critically important for medical professionals in corrections to know which seemingly benign drugs have the potential to be abused and diverted. Even if a particular inmate doesn’t care about getting high himself, he can still profit by selling these drugs to others who are. Vulnerable inmates can be (and are) bullied into obtaining these drugs for distribution–if we make them available. Continue reading

A Better Way to Drain Abscesses: The Berlin Technique

One of the consequences of the heroin epidemic we all are experiencing is a marked increase in the number of skin abscesses presenting to the jail medical clinics.  Jails have always had to deal with skin abscesses.  In fact, the single most popular JailMedicine post has been the Photographic Tutorial on Abscess I&D (found here).  But since the heroin epidemic, the number of skin abscess we see has exploded.  It is not unusual nowadays to lance an abscess every day!

The reason for this big increase in skin infections, of course, is that heroin users tend to share needles to shoot up, and these dirty needles leave behind the bugs that cause abscesses.  And since shooting up causes the abscesses, they tend to be found where addicts commonly shoot up–like the inner elbow, the forearm and even overlying the jugular veins of the neck.

Fortunately, just in time for this onslaught of abscesses, my good friend Neelie Berlin PA taught me a new method of lancing simple abscesses that is quicker and easier—yet just as effective—as the method I had been using for my entire career. I’m going to call this new method of draining abscesses “The Berlin Method.”

Who says you can’t teach an old Doc new tricks?  I have wholeheartedly gone over to the Berlin procedure.  It is THE method I use now to drain simple abscesses.

Today’s JailMedicine post is a pictographic tutorial on how to do this new easier method of lancing simple abscesses. Continue reading

Correctional Medicine Is Different: Our Patients Don’t Go Home!

This post is the final in a series exploring how Correctional Medicine is different than medicine practiced outside of jails and prisons.  The previous three differences were The Principle of Fairness and All Clinical Encounters are Discussed Back in the Dorms and We Can’t Fire Our Patients and They Can’t Fire Us!

The final major difference between correctional medicine and medicine in the outside world is this: Our patients do not go home. We have a captive audience. Literally! Believe it or not, this is a very important medical point.

Back in my previous life as an ER doc, if I asked a patient to come back tomorrow to be rechecked, I knew that few of them would. It was just too much hassle. They had to find a ride back to the ER (especially hard for the homeless or those without cars), they had to endure another prolonged wait in the ER waiting room. And they would be charged big bucks for another ER visit! No wonder so few of my scheduled follow-ups actually returned!

Once I began to practice in a jail clinic, I soon realized that the situation is much different. The patient I see in clinic today will not go home. She will go to her housing dorm down the hall. I know exactly where she will be tomorrow–or in a week. If I want to see her again tomorrow, I can. In fact, I can reliably see her in follow up anytime I want to.

One might think, “So what? What difference can it possibly make on the practice of medicine that our patients do not go home?” The answer is that this fact does indeed have several important consequences for the practice of clinical medicine. I can think of at least four.unknown-1 Continue reading

Correctional Medicine is Different: We Can’t Fire Our Patients—and They Can’t Fire Us!

This post is the third in a series exploring how Correctional Medicine is different than medicine practiced outside of jails and prisons.  The previous two differences were The Principle of Fairness and All Clinical Encounters are Discussed Back in the Dorms.

There is a controversy in pediatrics that I have been following recently. Some pediatricians have been dismissing children from their practice if their parents will not allow them to be vaccinated. This practice has been criticized as punishing innocent children for the actions of their parents but the pediatricians defend it by saying they are just trying to protect their other patients from being exposed to pertussis, measles and other transmittable diseases in the waiting room.

unknown-1This story illustrates an extreme example of something that we all know: that the practice of “firing” patients is commonplace in outside medicine. Many of my jail patients have been dismissed from medical practices, some more than once! Patients can be fired for variety of offenses. Some violate the contracts of their pain clinics. Some are dismissed for simply not following the doctor’s advice—like to get their children vaccinated. Many are no longer welcome when they cannot pay their bills or have lost insurance coverage. (One orthopedist that I know routinely sends a dismissal letter to his patients on their 65th birthday since he refuses to participate in Medicare). Finally, patients can be fired for just being too difficult to deal with. One jail patient in particular I remember screamed drunkenly at his doctor’s secretary to the point that she called the police. He received his official dismissal letter while he was in jail.

Well! Things are different in Correctional Medicine! We can’t fire our patients. Our patients remain our patients no matter what. It doesn’t matter if they violate the terms of a pain contract by, say, diverting medications. It doesn’t matter if they refuse to follow our advice. It doesn’t matter if they are difficult to deal with. Continue reading

Correctional Medicine is Different: All Clinical Encounters are Discussed in the Dorm

On my last post, I began a series discussing how Correctional Medicine is different from medicine in the “outside world.”  The first (and arguably the most important difference) is that medicine inside corrections has to be fair, whereas the bigger world of US medicine is not fair.

The second big difference between Correctional Medicine and outside medicine is this:  Every clinical encounter in correctional medicine is discussed back in the housing dorm.  This does not occur in outside medicine and is critically important to understanding doctor-patient relationships in corrections.

For those not familiar with the housing situation in jails and prisons, most inmates are housed in large housing dorms or pods.  Depending on the size of the institution, these can house anywhere from 10 inmates to over a hundred.  As you might expect from this situation, inmates spend a lot of time talking with each other, especially since they generally have more free time than your average person in the outside world.  Inmates spend a lot of time talking to one another.

So when an inmate returns to the dorm from a visit to the medical clinic, it is natural for the encounter to be discussed.  If the encounter was unusual or noteworthy in any way, this quickly becomes known throughout the pod.  And since different housing pods also communicate with each other, information about clinical encounters quickly spreads throughout the entire institution.Dorm 1 Continue reading

Do Uncomplicated Lacerations Need To Be Closed Within Six Hours?

Dr. Keller,
What do you think of the rule for lacerations that says a laceration has to be sutured within six hours or it cannot be sutured at all? At our facility, we send lots of inmates to the ER for simple cuts because the PA isn’t scheduled to be at the facility until the next day. If a cut is 10 hours old, why can’t it be fixed?  Where did this rule come from?
Kim A.

Thanks for the question, Kim. The short answer to this question is that that this belief is a myth. Uncomplicated lacerations can, indeed, wait more than 6 hours to be repaired.

“There is a common misconception that all wounds must be either sutured within a few hours or left open and relegated to slow healing and an unsightly scar.”  Roberts and Hedges’ Clinical Procedures in Emergency MedicineUnknown

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The M-Word–Malingering

I went to the always excellent NCCHC spring convention in Nashville last month. One of the many outstanding presentations was done by frequent lecturer Deana Johnson. Deana talked about the risks of using the word “malingering.” Her basic message was to be very careful about saying that an inmate is malingering—in fact, perhaps we should never use that word.

I was surprised by the degree of spirited disagreement from several members of the audience. They pointed out that “malingering” has a specific medical meaning and sometimes—even often—it is an appropriate medical diagnosis. They pointed out that malingering is listed as an official diagnosis in DSM-5 and that outside medical agencies, like mental hospitals, use the term malingering. If we can’t say that an inmate who is clearly faking is malingering, what are we supposed to say?

Today in Jail Medicine, I am going to tackle the term malingering. It turns out that there is indeed a correct and proper way to use the term malingering in correctional medical practice—but it is tricky and most often (in my experience) done incorrectly, with resultant bad consequences.

There are three important reasons for this. First, most people have an inaccurate idea of what malingering actually means in a medical sense and so use the term inaccurately. Second, the use of the term “malingering” also carries with it an emotional definition that MUST be taken into account when it is used in a medical document. Finally, use of the term “malingering” has important consequences for patient relations, patient behavior and time management.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that “malingering” is a term that should very rarely be used in correctional medicine. There are better and more precise ways to convey medical information. But if you do absolutely want to use the term “malingering,” you need to know how to use the term correctly. Continue reading

Taming the Beast—Gabapentin. Ban It or Regulate It?

In my last post, I began with a question from Christy.  Her facility was considering banning gabapentin from their facility due to rampant abuse and diversion problems.  My last post dealt with gabapentin’s interesting history and the evidence base for off-label gabapentin prescribing.  This JailMedicine post will deal with the pros and cons of banning gabapentin versus creating rules to regulate gabapentin use and hopefully minimize diversion and abuse. Continue reading

Taming the Beast: Gabapentin

A reader recently wrote

At our facility, one of the most abused drugs in Neurontin. I am the trying to formulate when this medication will be continued. My question is if the following is acceptable in your opinion:
Neurontin will not be given for any indication not approved by the FDA. The only indications approved by the FDA is for epilepsy and PHN after shingles. Now the question remains how can you tell what the indication of prescribing the Neurontin was? The therapeutic dose for the treatment of epilepsy is 900 to 1800mg a day divided into three times a day not to exceed 3600 mg per day. If you come to our facility on 300mg at night, this clearly indicates that the drug was not given for the two recommended doses so therefore, it can be assumed it was given for insomnia- which we do not treat at our facility. The Neurontin would be canceled and we would observe for signs and symptoms of withdrawal for the next 5 days.
Does this sound reasonable and do you know of a substitution for the treatment of diabetic neuropathy that is less abused in the jail setting?
Christy

Well, you’re not alone, Christy! Gabapentin is one of the most abused and diverted drugs at all correctional facilities that I know of! (I’m going to use the generic term “gabapentin” interchangeably with the brand name “Neurontin” in this article). In fact, I was recently in a meeting with the commissioner of a certain state’s Department of Corrections to give an update on medical services in his prisons and the very first question he asked was about gabapentin. Gabapentin! Think of all the things he could have been concerned about—Hepatitis C for example—and instead, he asked about the security problems caused by gabapentin diversion.

In my experience, gabapentin is one of the “Big Three” non-DEA regulated drugs with the potential for diversion and abuse in a prisons and jail. The other two are Seroquel and Trazodone. The important difference is that Seroquel and Trazodone both allow easy substitution of another, less abused, cousin. Gabapentin, not so much.  More on that later.

In order to get a handle on gabapentin, I think it is important to understand where it came from and why it has not approved by the FDA for most of the reasons it is prescribed nowadays. B_beuRNW8AEYOgn

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