Inmates can spend six to eight hours shackled in holding pens and sitting in traffic as they travel to NYC Health & Hospitals’ Bellevue campus for five minutes with a doctor. “That was frustrating for the patient because they went through this tremendous effort to get there and they could only have this very, very limited time to get their concerns addressed,” Pham said.
Though some prisons used telemedicine as early as the 1980s, its use has dramatically increased with the arrival of vastly improved technology, electronic medical records, and pressure to control ever rising medical costs.
iHealthBeat, Monday, January 25, 2016
Prisons increasingly are embracing telemedicine tools to manage their inmates’ health care needs, Stateline/Government Technology reports.
According to Stateline/Government Technology, telemedicine provides a number of benefits to prison health care systems, particularly those in rural areas that have to transport potentially dangerous prisoners and their security escorts to hospitals for care. The ability to provide care remotely also attracts more doctors, including specialists, to participate in prison health care because it eliminates travel time and concerns of personal safety.
Although it can be difficult to estimate the cost savings from prison telemedicine programs, Owen Murray — vice president of correctional managed care for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which handles health care for about 80% of Texas’ prison inmates — attributed the state’s low per-capita spending on prisoner health care to the technology. A Pew Charitable Trusts report estimated that Texas spent about $3,805 per prisoner on health care in 2011, compared with the national average of $6,047.
Several states across the U.S. have adopted or expanded their prison telemedicine programs in recent years, in part because of the improvements in electronic health records and other health IT tools.
- Colorado Department of Corrections uses telemedicine in nine of its prisons to make care more accessible to inmates;
- Louisiana Department of Corrections uses telemedicine at nine state facilities and 14 local jails to conduct about 3,500 telemedicine appointments annually;
- In Texas, University of Texas Medical Branch conducts about 127,000 telemedicine appointments annually at the state’s 83 correctional facilities; and
- Wyoming uses telemedicine at five state prisons, conducting about 440 telemedicine appointments annually.
Bradley Brockman, director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, called telemedicine “a godsend and a real gift because prisoners are getting care from providers or specialists that they would have far less chance of getting otherwise.”
However, David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, raised concerns about the technology being used inappropriately or excessively to save on health care costs. He cited a lawsuit in Arizona where full medical histories were not provided to doctors practicing telemedicine in prison. Fathi said, “Telemedicine does offer some positives, but it is never going to be as good as having an on-site physician who can perform hands-on diagnosis and treatment” (Ollove, Stateline/Government Technology, 1/21).