Tag Archives: correctional medicine

Utilization Management is Different in Corrections

This is an important fact that I have learned from many years working in prisons and jails: Most correctional practitioners do not understand how Utilization Management in a prison system works. They misunderstand what the goal of the UM process is. They misunderstand the process of submitting requests. And they misunderstand how decisions are made. It took me a full three years of working in a prison system before I wrapped my head around how UM was supposed to function. This is because UM within a correctional system is fundamentally different than UM in the outside world and also new incoming correctional practitioners are not taught how prison Utilization Management works or how to make UM requests properly.

To show how a prison is different than Utilization Management in a typical Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) in the outside world, let’s say that I am a primary care practitioner in the community who wants to order an MRI on one of my patients. As we all know from long experience, I can’t just order the MRI. I have to get it pre-authorized. To do that, I have to submit paperwork to the patient’s insurance company explaining why I want to do the procedure. Someone will review my request, but I will have no idea who this person is or what their qualifications are. The reviewer could be a physician, or it could be a nurse referring to UM guidelines.  I just don’t know and never will. Whoever that person is, they will either approve payment for the procedure or deny it.

Notice several important things about this interaction: Continue reading

Is a Concrete Cell Really the Best We Have To Offer Our Mentally Ill?

Consider the case of a 60-year-old patient I will call “Library Man.” While at the public library, Library Man took off most of his clothes and was talking loudly to no one in particular. The police were called, of course. He was charged with disturbing the peace and brought to my jail.

Jails basically have three types of housing areas. First are dormitory-style rooms with 60-100 residents. Library Man cannot be housed there—the young aggressive inmates would prey on him. Second are smaller cells that hold two to four inmates. The problem with these cells is that even if the jail could guarantee gentle cell mates, it would be hard to monitor Library Man in such cells. Such cells tend to be in out-of-the-way places and have small windows on the doors. The only place that Library Man can be reasonably housed in most jails is “Special Housing,” which refers in this case to a single-man isolation cell with lots of plexiglass to allow easy observation. Such rooms are designed to have nothing that someone could use to harm themselves, so they are made entirely of concrete and steel—even the bed. This is where Library man ends up—basically in a large concrete box.

Unfortunately, this is not a good place for Library Man to be. You may have guessed that Library Man is a homeless schizophrenic who had gone off of his meds. He is harmless–certainly not a danger to himself or to others. In his psychotic state, he does not understand why he was arrested and jailed. Library Man would benefit from familiar surroundings and normal social interaction with people. He will get neither of these in the alien and sterile environment of his concrete isolation cell. Continue reading

Grievance Responses PLUS Sample Grievance Guideline

Benjamin Franklin once famously quipped “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” However, Franklin did not work in a jail, otherwise he would have said: “Nothing is certain except death, taxes and grievances.”

On the outside, patients do not write grievances—they vote with their feet. If they dislike the medical care they are receiving, they will just go to a different doctor. In a jail, they cannot do this. We have a grievance system in Correctional Medicine because our patients cannot fire us (and we cannot fire them–discussed previously here). If jail patients are unhappy with their medical care, their only recourse is to write a grievance.

Grievances are not necessarily bad things. A medical grievance is sometimes the way by which jail patients alert us to significant problems that we may have not known about or mistakes that we made. I myself have had my butt saved in this manner—more than once! Many grievances are simply about communication errors. We have not yet adequately explained a medical decision to the patient.

Yet jail medical personnel often have a bad attitude about grievances. This is unfortunate, because medical grievances are an important—even essential—part of the jail medical system. I believe that the most important reason for the bad attitude is that people have not been taught how to write a proper grievance response. That, then is the topic of today’s JailMedicine post. Continue reading

Guest Post: A Prescription for Dog Food

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

Top Five Articles from 2018

2018 was a great year for JailMedicine! Noteworthy events from the year include:

I introduced a new feature–Sample Guidelines–which turned out to be very popular. I intend to add many more sample guidelines this year. Please let me know what guidelines you would like to see!

I began a new blog on MedPage Today entitled “Doing Time: Healthcare Behind Bars” (found here) that introduces our world of Correctional Medicine to outside medical professionals who have no idea what we do. This has also been well read.

Readership increased substantially in 2018. This may be because I published more articles . . . Thank you to everyone who read JailMedicine this year!

Without further ado, these are the five most read articles from 2018:

Abscess Incision and Drainage, a Photographic Tutorial

I was given the opportunity to create a tutorial of the classic method of lancing an abscess when a friend of mine came to my office with a great cutaneous abscess on his back.  This has been, by far, the most read JailMedicine article of all time.

Removing Microdermal Implants, A Photographic Tutorial

Microdermal implants are so common as to be ubiquitous.  Almost all of th jewels can be unscrewed from the base, which is my preferred way to deal with them in a jail setting.  However, occasionally, patients want to have the implant removed entirely. It is not hard, but many practitioners have never done it and so do not know how.

A Better Way to Drain Abscesses: The Berlin Technique

I have a confession to make.  I no longer (usually) incise and drain abscesses in the manner that I taught on the photographic tutorial above.  My dermatologist friend and colleague, Neelie Berlin, showed me this nifty technique that uses a 4mm punch biopsy tool  It is quicker, easier and just as effective for the majority of uncomplicated skin abscesses you will see in your clinics.  You just have to order the punch biopsy tool!

What’s the most cost-effective way to treat scabies? The answer might surprise you

Scabies is so common in jails that every jail medical professional should know how to recognize this itchy little pest. It is not too hard as this post points out.  Also, It turns out that treating scabies with oral ivermectin is less expensive and easier than using topical permethrin cream.

Medications at High Risk for Diversion and Abuse In Correctional Facilities

Many seemingly benign medications are commonly diverted and abused in correctional facilities.  The risk of abuse for some of them so overwhelms any potential benefits of these drugs that I argue that they should rarely be used in jails and prisons.

What was your favorite post from JailMedicine?  What should I address in future articles? Please comment!

Is My Patient Faking?

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

Sample Guideline: Bottom Bunk Requests

This clinical guideline is intended to be used as a template to help clinicians and administrators create their own policies. This sample guideline must be modified to make it applicable to each unique correctional facility. This guideline is not intended to apply to all patients. Practitioners should use their clinical judgement for individual patients.

Introduction. Occasionally, inmates who have been assigned the top bunk of a bunk bed state that they have a medical condition that requires them to be given the bottom bunk instead. Since medical providers must be fair and consistent, it is important to differentiate medical need for a low bunk from requests made for non-medical reasons such as a desire for convenience or as a sign of increased status.

Medical need. Medical need for a low bunk generally falls into one of two categories: Patients who are unable to safely climb onto the top bunk because of physical limitations and patients who have a medical condition that might lead them to fall off of the top bunk and injure themselves.

Patients who are unable to safely climb onto the top bunk because of physical limitations include:

  • Obesity (BMI >30)
  • Advanced age and/or infirmity
  • Late term pregnancy.
  • Permanent physical disabilities, such as amputations, paralysis, or previous strokes.
  • Temporary physical disabilities such as a broken bone or recent surgery.

Patients who have a medical condition that might lead them to fall off of the top bunk include:

  • Seizure disorders which are current and ongoing.
  • Conditions causing vertigo or dizziness, such as Meniere’s disease.
  • Conditions which impair coordination such as cerebral palsy.

Chronic pain syndromes independent of other conditions such as those listed above generally do not constitute a medical need for a bottom bunk assignment.

Patients who have been successfully using a top bunk generally do not have a medical need for a bottom bunk reassignment unless their medical condition has acutely changed, such as with a traumatic injury. Example. A patient has been using a top bunk for three weeks. Now he comes to medical stating that there are several bottom bunks available in his pod. He would like medical to approve a bunk reassignment for him because of an old leg injury. The fact that he has been using a top bunk for three weeks indicates that this patient does not have a legitimate medical need for a bottom bunk.

Nursing Personnel may address routine patient requests for low bed assignments based on this guideline. If nursing personnel are unsure or have questions, they may refer the patient to a medical practitioner.

Documentation. Security personnel assign bunks, not medical personnel. Medical personnel are being asked if a patient has a medical need for a low bunk assignment. Therefore, medical personnel should document the answer to this question only.

Incorrect: “Bottom bunk request is not approved.” Correct: “This patient does not have a medical need for a bottom bunk assignment.”
Incorrect: “Bottom bunk is approved for medical reasons.” (Security staff may elect to place the patient on a single bed, a cot, or a floor “boat” instead of a bottom bunk.)
Correct: “This patient should not be assigned a top bunk for medical reasons.”

If a patient does have a legitimate medical need for a low bunk assignment, consideration should also be paid to the patient’s other housing needs. For example, a low bunk may not actually meet the patient’s needs; the patient may need a hospital bed. Patients who have a medical need for a low bunk assignment may need to be restricted to a bottom tier so that they will not have to climb stairs. Patients who are inmate workers may need work restrictions. If the medical need for a low bunk assignment is temporary (such as a broken arm), the bottom bunk memo should have a time limit.

Sample guidelines can be found under the “Guidelines” tab (above) as they are published. I view these sample guidelines as a group effort! If you have a suggestion, critique or simply a better way to phrase some concept, say so in comments!

Opioid Withdrawal Not Deadly? Wrong!

One thing I always tell practitioners who are beginning a jail medical practice: you’re going to see a lot of withdrawal cases — study up! In particular, since the opioid epidemic hit, the number of patients I’ve seen in my jails withdrawing from heroin and other opioids of all stripes has skyrocketed. I’ve seen enough patients withdrawing from opioids that I think I am reasonably knowledgeable on the topic. Because of this, I was quite surprised when I ran across this sentence in a recent edition of The Medical Letter:

“Opioid withdrawal is not life-threatening.” — The Medical Letter

The problem is that although this sentence seems quite self-assured, it is flat out wrong. In fact, it is not just wrong; it is also dangerous. People do die from opioid withdrawal. I know of several such cases from my work with jails. Opioid withdrawal needs to be recognized as a potentially life-threatening condition, just like alcohol withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal. Continue reading

Sample Food Allergy Guideline

Today’s post is the second in a series of sample clinical guidelines.  All of these sample guidelines will be placed under the “Guidelines” tab (above) as they are published. I view these sample guidelines as a group effort!  If you have a suggestion, critique or simply a better way to phrase some concept, say so in comments.

I wrote about food allergies previously on JailMedicine in “Food Allergies: Sorting Out Truth from Fiction” (found here). Since then, I have had more email requests for a Food Allergy guideline than all other sample guidelines put together.  It is clearly a BIG issue in corrections. Continue reading

Gabapentin in the News!

2018 has been a remarkable year for news and research into gabapentin, and the year is not even over yet! That is great news for those of us (myself included) who puzzle over the proper role of gabapentin within correctional medicine. On the one hand, if gabapentin is a useful drug for chronic pain, neuropathy, or any other medical condition, I want to use it properly. On the other hand, gabapentin is a ferociously abused drug within jails and prisons. It is both a sedating and euphoric drug that also can be hallucinogenic at high doses. When it is available within a prison, there is inevitably abuse of gabapentin (like snorting it), diversion of gabapentin (because it has large value within the correctional black market and so can be sold to others), and finally, there is inevitably coercion of weaker inmates by stronger inmates to acquire gabapentin prescriptions and give those prescriptions up to the strong.  Those of us in corrections have seen all of this and worse.

So any news of gabapentin, whether good or bad, can change the balance of this deliberation. If gabapentin is proven to be more effective medically, it may be worth tolerating the abuse. If it is found to be ineffective, there is no reason to introduce this stressor into the system.  With this in mind, here is a sample of the 2018 news on gabapentin. Continue reading