Skip to main content

Controlling Prison Healthcare Costs with Telemedicine

When you think of a typical telemedicine visit, you might picture a patient in a rural town communicating with a big-city specialist, or a primary care provider triaging with an emergency room department. Virtual care is now a regular aspect of the clinical landscape, from disaster recovery to behavioral and addiction treatment to military life.

But there’s another, less visible realm where telemedicine has transformed costing savings and patient outcomes: correctional facilities. In fact, prison systems in Federal, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas are already using GlobalMed virtual care solutions.

The reason? There are three, actually: safety, cost savings, and improved care.

1. Safety

Traditionally, prisoners requiring serious care are transported outside the facility to hospitals. Though rare, several prisoners have been able to escape or attack their officers and hospital staff.

One 2013 emergency room incident turned violent when an inmate visiting the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary fought with his security guards. He was shot in the chest and a deputy sheriff was shot in the leg. In 2001, a prisoner taken to University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas took two nurses hostage and assaulted them.

Telemedicine keeps the inmate within prison walls, surrounded by guards – instead of exposing them to hospital staff, who may not be trained in security protocols.

2. Cost Savings

Inmate healthcare is costly. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, $7.7 billion of an overall $38.6 billion spent on corrections in 2011 went toward inmate healthcare. Many inmates enter prison with chronic health conditions and infectious diseases; longer prison terms and life sentences have created an aging population who often need extensive care.

Telemedicine can control costs in several ways. Virtual visits reduce the number of unnecessary medical tests and inmate trips to outside emergency rooms, which involve guard and transportation costs. These visits can also identify offenders who are faking an illness simply to leave the prison.

3. Improved Care

Finding physicians willing to provide on-site inmate care isn’t easy for prisons. Many facilities are in remote locations; even a slight risk of being taken hostage can keep doctors at bay.

At the same time, prisons are legally responsible for providing prompt treatment. A 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirmed that deliberate indifference to an inmate’s illness or an injury violates the Eighth Amendment, which bans “cruel and unusual” punishment for crimes. The American Civil Liberties Union and prisoner rights groups have filed lawsuits over the lack of timely medical and behavioral healthcare for inmates.

Texas Saves $780 Million with Telemedicine

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) invested in a telemedicine program that saved them millions and demonstrated multiple benefits for the correctional system. The TDCJ system operates 31 state prisons at the cost of $3 billion a year – spending $581 million on just healthcare in one year. To manage costs and ensure quality care for inmates, TDCJ partnered with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch to implement a virtual care program using GlobalMed solutions.

In addition to reducing the risk associated with external medical visits, the telemedicine program achieved several incredible financial benefits:

  • The former director of telemedicine at the TexLa Telehealth Resource Center in Lubbock calculated that the program stopped 85 percent of Texas inmates from leaving the prison for healthcare.
  • With transportation and guard costs estimated at $350 per visit, Texas saved an estimated $3,198,300 in one year through 9,138 inmate telemedicine encounters.
  • The program ultimately saved the TDCJ $780 million over 14 years.

California Expands Access to Specialty Care with 70,000 Telemedicine Consults

The California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) has continued to implement, expand, and improve their telemedicine services for both primary care and specialty services. As a result, they’ve increased access to healthcare for their patient/inmate population, increased public safety, and decreased inmate off-site medical transportation costs. From 2010 to 2018, they saw a more than ten-fold increase in telemedicine primary care encounters and a 111% increase in telemedicine specialty encounters. CCHCS was also able to expand specialist access from 30 specialists in 4 locations in 2006 to 200 specialists in 22 locations by 2018. Read case study.

Controlling Costs Today and Tomorrow

Healthcare delivery may be evolving across the industry, but the need to provide cost-effective inmate care will remain constant. Correctional facilities can control spending with virtual care programs that solve physician shortage issues, reduce outside medical visits, and avoid lawsuits. Bringing advanced medical care inside prison walls can be as simple as a telemedicine solution, and more budget-friendly than any other treatment option.

Interested in cutting costs and providing faster care in your facility? Get a GlobalMed demo today.

Download our Corrections Infographic PDF

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • I like that you mentioned the functionality of telehealth, Correctional Healthcare Consulting Services can make it very safe for a doctor to see an inmate as he never has to leave the prison walls. My cousin is in a correctional facility and he recently got sick and just had to rough it out. Maybe a telehealth doctor could’ve helped him get better.

  • Sarah Smith says:

    I had no idea that life sentences create issues in jails with aging populations and rising medical costs. That makes me wonder how often life sentences are given. It would be interesting to learn more about what it takes to get a life sentence.

  • Telemedicine has so many benefits in the prison system. It’s good to hear it is being deployed there. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply