Tag Archives: inmates

Inmates cannot go out to find good doctors in the community. Good doctors have to choose to go to them!

I remember the first time someone told me that I was “wasting my talents” by working in a jail. At that time, I had no ready witty rebuttal. I love my job and I especially appreciate working with a patient population that is disadvantaged and underserved. Of course, the idea that incarcerated inmates are worthy recipients of medical care is, well–controversial. Inmates are not as politically correct as other medically disadvantaged populations.

As an example, if you were to tell your family and friends that you were going to work with at a medical clinic for the homeless in an inner city, or to provide medical care in a needy third world country, the reaction probably would be something along the lines of “Good for you! I admire your selflessness and dedication!” Yet when you tell these same people instead that you are going to work in a prison, you are much more likely to get this reaction: “What’re ya, nuts? Why would you waste your talents working with them?” I personally have heard the “you’re wasting your talents” line more than once. Continue reading

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 a Great Job! Who Knew?

I have a confession to make.  Before I knew anything about Correctional Medicine, I had a bad opinion about it.  I’m not proud of this.  I even turned down my first opportunity to get into Correctional Medicine because of my preconceived prejudice. Thank goodness I got a second opportunity, because Correctional Medicine changed my life! Who knew that Correctional Medicine was such a great job and a great career?

Certainly not my colleagues.  Back when I made the mid-life career change to jail medicine, my physician friends asked me, bewildered, “Why in the world would you want to work in a jail?”  Without knowing anything about it, they had a preconceived notion of Correctional Medicine as being low skill and basically without redeeming features.

What a difference 15 years makes! careersprisondoctor 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

Correctional Medicine: The Principle of Fairness

I am often asked by my non-correctional colleagues what it is like to work in a jail. I tell them that practicing correctional medicine is different in many ways than medicine in the “free” world. Many of them scoff at this. How could the practice of medicine be different in a jail than it is anywhere else? “Medicine is medicine,” they say.

But correctional medicine is different. In my experience, if you just throw a practitioner into a jail or prison clinic without any training, he likely will not do well. It took me two full years before I was comfortable in my sick call clinics and I am still learning things as I go. Experience matters in Corrections!

This is obvious to those of us who have experience working in jails and prisons. But how do you explain the intricacies of a jail medical clinic to an outside physician? I have thought about this a lot over the many years I have practiced correctional medicine and I have come up with several concrete examples of how correctional medicine is different from medicine “on the outs.” The first, and perhaps the most important, difference is the Principle of Fairness.Unknown-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

Continue reading