Let’s say one of my jail patients has a moderate-sized inguinal hernia. I want to schedule surgery to have the hernia fixed, but to do so, I have to get authorization. This is not unusual. Just like the outside, before I can do medical procedures or order non-formulary drugs, I must get the approval of the entity that will pay the bill. By contract, my jails house inmates from a variety of jurisdictions, such as the Federal Marshals, ICE, the State Department of Corrections and other counties. This process of “Utilization Management” is very similar to getting pre-authorization from an insurance company or Medicaid in the free world, probably because Corrections simply copied the outside pre-authorization process.
Having done this process hundreds of times over the years, both in the free world and in Correctional Medicine, I am struck by a phrase that keeps coming up: “medically necessary.” When authorization for a procedure is denied, the reason often given is that it is “not medically necessary.” I then have to argue that what I am requesting is, indeed, medically necessary. The problem is that there are many possible definitions of “medically necessary,” and I believe many disagreements arise because two parties understand “medical necessity” differently.
What is the most common mistake made when treating
withdrawal in a correctional facility?
Consider these two patients:
A jail patient booked yesterday is referred to
medical because of a history of drinking.
He has a mild hand tremor and “the look” of a heavy drinker. But he says
he feels fine and has no complaints. His blood pressure is 158/96 and his heart
rate is 94.
A newly booked jail patient says that she is
going to go through heroin withdrawal. She
is nauseated but still eating and has no gooseflesh or rhinorrhea. Her heart rate mildly elevated.
In many jails, neither of these patients would be started on treatment for withdrawal at their first visit to medical. But this would be a mistake! Both patients should be started on treatment for withdrawal immediately.
The most common mistake made when treating withdrawal in a jail is not to treat the withdrawal at all!
Both of these patients have the potential to slide downhill rapidly. And in both cases, the potential benefits of starting treatment far, far outweigh any potential liability.
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.
Patients are dying in correctional facilities from
benzodiazepine withdrawal! This is not
just a theoretical observation; this really is happening. This fact bothers me since
benzo withdrawal deaths are preventable.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal is easy to treat! It is certainly easier to treat benzo
withdrawal than the other two potentially deadly withdrawal states, alcohol and
opioids. By far, the most common cause of
benzodiazepine deaths is, of course, not treating it!
So, is your facility at risk to have a patient die of
benzodiazepine withdrawal? To find out, compare
your policies to the following Rules for the Treatment of Benzodiazepine Withdrawal.
At one of my recent jail medical clinics, three patients in a row requested prescriptions for gabapentin. One was a patient newly arrived from the Idaho Department of Corrections to be housed at my jail due to prison overcrowding. He had already been prescribed gabapentin at the prison for complaints of low back pain radiating to one leg and wanted me to continue it–forever. The second patient was prescribed gabapentin by his outside practitioner for a boxer’s fracture that had been surgically repaired years ago. The third was prescribed gabapentin at a previous jail due to “nerve damage” from an old gunshot wound to the upper arm (he had a large scar but no functional disability or decreased sensation).
Gabapentin prescriptions for nonspecific musculoskeletal pain have clearly become common in the community and in corrections. These three patients represent only a fraction of the similar cases I see in my jails! I suspect that this gabapentin-mania is being driven by a belief that gabapentin is preferable to prescribing narcotics (though I would not think any of the three patients above would be candidates for narcotics). Gabapentin, in fact, is often prescribed for musculoskeletal pain in my community first line—before NSAIDS and Tylenol, even—and many, like these three patients, subsequently believe that gabapentin is something they will need to take for the rest of their lives.
The problem is that prescribing gabapentin for
musculoskeletal pain is not evidence-based and (in my opinion) bad medicine.
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.
The State Board of Medicine in my home state recently sent out a bulletin about the practice of “friendly prescribing” to people who the practitioner has not examined. For example, a friend might call me and say something like “I have a sore throat. Will you call me in a prescription for antibiotics?” I’m sure that almost everyone who has practiced medicine has received such phone calls! The Board of Medicine was concerned about this. They went so far as to to condemn as unethical the practice of issuing such prescriptions without ever examining the patient or documenting the encounter.
In my opinion, this applies to correctional physicians prescribing to new inmates they have never seen, as well.
When arresting officers arrive with their charges at a certain large urban jail, the first person they see when they come through the doors is a nurse. The nurse quickly evaluates the arrested person to determine whether a medical clearance is needed before the person can be booked. If a clearance is needed, the arresting officer has to transport the prisoner to a local ER and then return with the medical clearance in hand.
One evening (so the story goes), an arresting officer arrives at the jail bodily dragging a prisoner through the pre-book door by the backseat of his pants and coat. “This guy’s an a**hole,” the officer says. “He won’t do anything I ask. He just ignores me.” He then dumps the prisoner on the floor. The nurse kneels down by the prisoner briefly, looks up and says, “That’s because he’s dead!”
Medical clearances are a hugely important and often neglected part of the jail medical process.
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.