Using Telemedicine in Prisons

Despite their circumstances, prisoners are patients too. No matter the reason for their sentence, people in prisons still have the right to receive treatment and medical attention. Still, this doesn’t mean that individuals actually get the time they need with doctors. Many inmates suffer from chronic diseases, in addition to the wear and tear of prison life. Now, rather than shackling and transporting inmates to provide them with just a few minutes with a doctor, professionals are using telemedicine in prisons.

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using telemedicine in prisons

When it comes to actually visiting doctors, the process of getting inmates from A to B is usually quite an ordeal. It often involves hours of security measures, sitting in traffic, and getting the right clearances just for a few minutes of medical attention.

For people serving prison sentences, attending to their wellbeing isn’t a high priority for most facilities. The dangers and risk associated with moving prisoners anywhere require many careful considerations. Given the logistics, doctors seldom see patients in person, so using telemedicine in prisons is a logical solution.

Using Telemedicine in Prisons to Meet Demands

Given the data available, the demand for inmate health care has risen sharply from 1999 to 2007. Between this period alone, the number of incarcerated men over the age of 55 jumped 82%. Additionally, more than 18% of female inmates were over 50 years old in 2011. This indicates that there is a significant need for the treatment of older inmates, in addition to the fact that about 40% of prisoners report at least one chronic illness. Inmates are also at least seven times more likely to have a chronic hepatitis C infection, so clearly, the demand is there.

Still, providing health care to inmates isn’t cheap and presents significant staffing challenges. California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the process of transporting, guarding, and then treating inmates costs more than $2,000 per day, reaching $8 billion dollars a year. So, how exactly is telemedicine used in these situations?

What Does Telemedicine Involve?

While it’s been around in basic forms since the 90’s, the availability of better and more cost-efficient technology made using telemedicine in prisons much more feasible. Doctors meet with inmates via video conference calls, allowing face-to-face consultation, and a direct line of sight with each individual. During virtual visits, doctors can listen to the patient’s symptoms, with the most common professionals specializing in infectious disease, gastroenterology, and urology considering inmate needs.

On the physician’s end of things, the common set-up includes dual-screen monitors, one displaying the patient and the other showing his or her electronic health record. In many cases, this is one of the brief encounters that inmates have to address their personal needs despite the presence of guards. Many reports state that inmates seem noticeably more relaxed via telemedicine visits over in-person consultations. Nonetheless, this approach is likely among the best solutions for providing medical care to inmates.

Some Improvements to Make

And while using telemedicine in prisons seems very commonsense, it’s still something that state and local jails lack in many regards. Considering that inmates in federal prisons usually spend more time there, it’s easy to see why lower level facilities haven’t quite caught up yet. Another area of improvement also comes to attention when discussing mental health. Of the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated, 26% of those in jail and 14% of those in prison met the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “threshold for serious psychological distress.” Again, using telemedicine in prisons is one way to get these patients the treatment they need.

Do you have experience using telemedicine in prisons? Any experience using telemedicine at all? Let us know in the comments below!


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