BATON ROUGE, La. — Following the abrupt closure of the Earl K. Long Medical Center in April, Louisiana prison officials quickly began the search for an additional prison health care provider. Rather than continue to send inmates to outside institutions, officials have turned to telemedicine to fill the gap.
Telemedicine is a unique method that allows doctors to work remotely with the assistance of videoconferencing, an on-site nurse and specialized medical examination devices. Despite the distance between doctor and patient, it has quickly become a reliable, convenient and effective source for inmate health care, and has earned many supporters among the state’s prison health professionals.
Telemedicine clinics were first instituted in the state in 1997 with just pulmonary, orthopedics, diabetic, and dermatology options. Currently, the Department of Corrections provides ear, nose and throat, infectious disease, endocrinology, urology and multiple other specializations via telemedicine.
Dr. Raman Singh, the medical and mental health director for the Louisiana prison system, believes telemedicine is a key part of an integrated inmate health care system. “Telemedicine is a supplement,” said Raman. “It’s a very effective triage for select groups of patients where we know it works. It improves access to care.”
This method has also increased public safety, as many inmates no longer need to be taken off-site to receive the necessary medical attention. In May, Deputy Secretary Thomas Bickham said, “In the past, we would have to load (the inmates) up, transport them to the closest LSU hospital, have them see that physician, then transport them back. What tele-medicine allows us to do is to keep that inmate behind the fences at the institution. It allows us to get the same medical treatment at the same cost, do it more efficiently and effectively, but most importantly it's very protective of public safety because again you're leaving the prisoner behind the walls in order to get treatment.”
Most basic care needs will continue to be managed on-site without the use of telemedicine. However, it will be especially helpful for inmates with more serious or chronic health needs, such as those recovering from life-threatening illness, allowing them more consistent access to follow up treatment. If an initial consultation does reveal more serious or specialized medical issues, an appointment can quickly be made with the physician.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections announced plans to increase telemedicine visits by nearly 600 percent in May of 2013, putting its telemedicine goal at roughly 20,000 visits annually. The DOC then requested quotes from several telemedicine providers and ultimately awarded a $560,000 contract to U.S. Telehealth, a provider experienced in offering telemedicine to those in remote locations such as oil rigs. A $1.8 million contract was also awarded to the Louisiana State University Medical Center, which had already been conducting roughly 3,000 telemedicine check ups for the department annually. U.S. Telehealth will be responsible for inmate health care in the northern part of the state, while the LSU Medical School will retain its contract to provide care to inmates in the south. The money to expand the services came from an existing inmate medical treatment fund.