What Does “Medically Necessary” Mean?

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.

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Documenting Test Results the Ed and Midge Way

I have a ten-year-old Yorkie named Ed. Ed is experienced and knows the daily routine of our house. Last year, we got a Yorkie puppy named Midge. She initially knew nothing.  It has been entertaining to watch Ed educate Midge on what to do. Midge watches Ed closely and then does whatever Ed does. She is a true Ed Mini-Me. If Ed lays down, Midge lays down.  If Ed asks to go out, Midge wants to go out, too. If Ed begs for a treat, so does Midge.

Since Ed is a pretty good dog, most of what he has taught Midge have been good things, like ask to go outside when you need to potty and sit to say “please” when you want a treat.  But Ed also has some bad habits that he has imparted to Midge.  Ed still has the Yorkie propensity to yap at the door when the doorbell rings, and so Midge has also learned to also sound the alarm.

Medical education is like this. I remember being a young dog medical intern and watching my heroes, the senior residents. Not everything in medicine is taught in medical textbooks and didactic lectures!  Much of what we actually learn as medical practitioners is an imitation of our elders.  For example, I watched what the senior residents ate (junk), when they slept (rarely) and how they treated nurses (some good, some poorly), among other things. Like Ed, most of what my senior residents taught me by example was good. But there are a few sketchy practices handed down from medical resident to medical student that can become bad habits.

Ed: Do what I do. Midge: Ok!
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What is the most common mistake made when treating withdrawal?

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.

Let’s look at these cases in more detail.

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Beware the Bounce-Back!

I learned about Bounce-Backs back in my Emergency Medicine days.  A bounce-back is a patient who you saw in the ER and discharged but then returned within 48 hours with the same complaint.  A lot of time is spent in emergency medicine education talking about how to handle bounce-backs.  The basic message is “Beware! You may have missed an important diagnosis the first time!” 

Bounce-backs happen in correctional medicine, too. Bounce-backs can happen in jails, where we often deal with patients we do not know well. But bounce-backs also happen in prisons, when patients we do know well have a new complaint.  Just like in emergency medicine, a bounce-back in a jail or a prison is a patient who comes to the medical clinic with a new complaint, receives a diagnosis and treatment and then re-kites for the same complaint within a couple of days.  Here are a couple of examples.

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Covid Fatigue and Leadership

When Covid-19 burst onto the scene three months ago, the jail administrators and the medical teams in my jails initiated several common sense practices to reduce the possibility of Covid infiltrating the jails.  These included screening and quarantining new inmates before allowing them into the dorms, screening jail employees daily, doing lots of Covid tests and, perhaps most importantly, having deputies wear masks at work.   The good news is that, so far, there have been no cases of Covid-19 in any of my jails (knock on wood here).

However, there seems to be growing evidence of “Covid Fatigue” in my community.  When I go out in public, I am one of the very few still wearing a mask.  And this is unfortunately spilling over to the correctional facilities.  I did a clinic at one of my smaller jails this week and was surprised and dismayed to see that the deputies were no longer wearing masks.  In the meantime, Community Covid cases are climbing, so the risk of transmitting Covid to the jail is actually greater than it was, say, a month ago.

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Using a Wrench Instead of a Hammer for Alcohol Withdrawal

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 something better.

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ACCP Position Paper on the Funding of Hepatitis C Treatment

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.

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Keep Covid Out of the Jail!

“We’ve got another one,” My nurse told me on the phone. “He says he was exposed to Covid.”

Ever since Covid-19 came to my town, many people being arrested have begun to say that they have Covid or have been exposed; the thought being that “If I have Covid, they can’t put me in jail.”   Of course, it doesn’t work that way.  They go to jail anyway. 

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You Need a Plan for Corona virus in your Facility

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. 

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