Behind Bars: The Prison Healthcare System Adopts TelemedicineThe United States prison system is seeing increasing benefits from telemedicine initiatives. With a standard telecommunications console, psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals can connect remotely, and diagnose and treat prisoners. Even the most violent inmates have a right to medical care, and telemedicine allows doctors to provide it from a safe distance.

Telemedicine has existed since the 1980s, but newer technology has pushed the concept forward and made it more accessible for prisons across the nation. An audio console, video camera with a zoom function, and a monitor comprise a standard telemedicine unit. Some professionals can connect to inmates remotely from their homes or offices, and some prisons have established specialized telemedicine facilities in major cities.

Telemedicine Keeps Doctors Safe

Texas houses the United States’ largest prison system with over 150,000 inmates, and some are extremely dangerous. One prison psychologist had a very unnerving encounter with an incarcerated gang member in the early 2000s. Pradan Nathan was treating a prisoner who requested a specific medication. Nathan explained that he did not need the prescription, and the prisoner responded by threatening to stab him to death.

While doctors that connect remotely still receive threats of violence, it happens at a much safer distance. Although some may argue that the nuance of face-to-face interactions is lost with telemedicine, the additional safety these programs afford to healthcare professionals is undeniable.

Remote Treatment Saves Money

Overall, prisoner healthcare expenses amount to roughly 20 percent of total prison budgets. This includes transportation costs, fuel and vehicle maintenance, and the additional security necessary to escort them to and from hospitals or other health care facilities, and ensure that they do not endanger hospital staff and bystanders or attempt to escape. Telemedicine drastically reduces these concerns.

The distance between prisons and healthcare professionals has also encumbered the healthcare system, which often contributes to rising costs per-inmate as well. Most prisons are in remote locations, and without telemedicine initiatives, doctors need to travel extensively to visit patients.

Clear Benefits for Patients and Doctors

Remote treatment also gives inmates faster access to care. Doctors may be able to spot serious symptoms before they require emergency medical intervention rather than waiting longer to see the patient face-to-face, which can save millions of tax payer dollars. The additional safety afforded to doctors also means more are willing to participate in prison healthcare programs. When more prisoners have easier access to treatments, they pose far less of a risk to the professionals that treat them.

While the exact savings from telemedicine programs are tricky to calculate, the safety afforded to physicians and other healthcare professionals is invaluable—and prisons are clearly saving money by not having to constantly transport prisoners back and forth to hospitals. Though some patient-doctor interaction may be lost in remote treatments (and psychiatrists in particular prefer in-person assessment of their patients’ living conditions), the tradeoff of faster, safer, and more available care is more than reasonable.

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