Are You Thinking Clearly? Rooting Out Biases in Clinical Evaluations

Jigsaw puzzleI was raised on Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle novels and still find shows like Elementary and Sherlock captivating. In fact, it is the detective work inherent in nursing assessment and diagnosis that drew me to the nursing profession and still keeps me interested some 3 decades later. Oh, for the clarity of mind of Hercules Poirot and Sherlock Holmes when tracking down the cause of a patient’s erratic behavior or unexplainable loss of function!

Unlike these fictional characters, though, we mere humans can be burdened by unconscious biases of thought that cloud our judgement and send us toward wrong conclusions. Improving clinical judgement, then, involves intentionally looking for and rooting out these mental biases in our evaluative practices.

Here is a chart of common cognitive biases I developed for my book The Correctional Health Care Patient Safety Handbook.  Let’s take a look at a few of them as they may emerge in a typical nursing sick call encounter.

Bias Definition Corrective Strategy
Availability Determination based on ease of recalling past cases Verify with legitimate statistics
Premature Closure Relying  too heavily on initial impressions Reconsider determination in light of new data or a second opinion, consider extremes
Framing Effects Being swayed by the description of the  problem Examine the case from alternative perspectives
Blind Obedience Showing undue deference to authority or technology Reconsider when authority is more remote; assess test accuracy
Confirmation Seeking data to confirm, rather than refute, a favored hypothesis Consciously seek both confirming and refuting data
Representativeness Guided by typical features of a disease and missing atypical variants Take into account typical and atypical findings before settling on a diagnosis
Sunk Costs Difficulty considering alternative diagnoses once significant time, effort, and resources have been invested in a particular diagnosis Consider involving a second practitioner free of attachment to the favored diagnosis

 

Remember the patient encounter discussed in the Diabetes Primer post? Here it is again.

A 42 year old female inmate submits a sick call request about her ankle. She thinks she sprained it when she stumbled while walking to the exercise yard one morning a couple days ago. A chart review indicates she is a Type II diabetic and is on a combination of metformin and glipizide. She was recently treated for a vaginal yeast infection with fluconazole (Monostat). She has no other acute or chronic conditions of note. Her ankle is only slightly swollen and painful when she bears weight.

The nurse in that situation analyzed all the information and came to an astute conclusion. What might have happened if a few of the common mental biases had been active?

  • Availability: If the pavement is, in fact, uneven on the way to the exercise yard and the nurse has had other patients stumble or fall, it might be easy to conclude that this is a safety issue rather than a medication issue.
  • Premature Closure: Availability bias might then lead to a premature closure of investigation before seeking out all possible causes. Here, the nurse would focus entirely on the ankle and not bring in any additional evaluation data.
  • Framing Effect: If the patient framed the injury in such a way that being dizzy did not enter into the description, the effect might also be to focus only on the safety issue and musculoskeletal injury.
  • Confirmation: Once favoring a focus on the musculoskeletal injury, the nurse might limit the assessment to the ankle and not pursue any medical causes of the stumble.

Clinical evaluation is a highly specialized skill in professional nursing practice that is of particular need in nursing sick call and emergency man-down situations. Intentionally rooting out mental biases in our assessment and nursing diagnosis practices can avoid error and improve patient outcomes.

Have you struggled with any of these common mental biases in your clinical practice? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © Tsiumpa

April 2015 News Round Up (Podcast Episode 97)

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cnt-podcast_cover_art-1400x1400Correctional nurse leaders Johnnie Lambert, Margaret Collatt, and Jodie Glewwe join Lorry to discuss the latest correctional health care news items.

CDCR To Limit Punishments for Inmates With Mental Health Issues

Our first story is an update on activities in the California Prison System. They are a happening place – always in the news. This month California Healthline is reporting that CDRC has changes policies about punishing mentally ill inmates. This is a result of a federal lawsuit. Changes include creating segregation units in 16 of their prisons where solitary confinement restrictions can be eased and these inmates can have access to more treatment and therapy. We are hearing a lot about the incarcerated mentally ill in the news.

Challengers to prison solitary gain support from Justice Kennedy

Our next story is a good follow-up to the California update. Here Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy weighed in on the solitary confinement issue while giving testimony to a House committee on the Supreme Court budget. With many civil rights cases about the detrimental effects of solitary confinement, Kennedy is quoted as saying: “Solitary confinement literally drives men mad”. He also said, in regard to our criminal justice system, that “In many respects, I think it’s broken.” There is a ground-swell of support is developing for changes in some of our standard security practices.

Inmates at America’s oldest women’s prison are writing a history of it—and exploding the myth of its benevolent founders.

Inmates in the Indiana Women’s Prison are researching and writing about the institution – which is the oldest women’s prison in the US. The prison was started as the Indiana Reformatory Institute for Women and Girls by Quaker reformers in 1873. That is over 140 years ago! This historical research is uncovering some interesting bits about the institution, the founders, and what incarceration was like for women in the 19th century. Take aways from the news item:

  • The project develops research skills for some of the current inmates
  • Things are never as they seem at first light
  • Context is everything. Culture was very different in the mid 19th

‘RN on wheels’ to treat N.C. inmates

Our final story is about a paraplegic nurse who is setting new standards for disabled workers. Latisha Anderson lost the use of her lower limbs after her cousin fired a gun while arguing with her boyfriend. The bullet hit Latisha, leaving her a paraplegic at age 17. Undeterred, though, she pursued first her G.E.D. and then a nursing degree. She applied for and was accepted into a position at the Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. Will this be an ADA celebration or a security nightmare?

What are your thoughts on this month’s news items? Joint the conversation using the comments section below.

Time Crunch: What to Do When Med Pass is Cancelled

Time of medicineConsider this scenario: Just as you are preparing for morning med pass at a large city jail a man-down alarm is sounded. Your partner is assigned to emergencies today and she grabs the emergency bag and heads to the announced floor. You continue your preparations, making note that you may be handling both passes this morning if your partner is tied up for very long. A few minutes later, as you are rolling the cart out of the medication room, a call comes in. The man-down is an officer assault, the entire facility is in lockdown, and morning medication rounds are cancelled. Now what?

In traditional health care settings, emergencies may delay some services but accommodations are made to overcome resource limitations to keep care delivery on schedule. Delivering health care is the prime mission of these organizations so plans for emergency need are ever present. In a correctional setting, health care is a support service and not the primary organizational mission. Safety trumps health care needs at all times. Yet, nurses working in secure settings have an obligation to make sure needed medical care, including medication, is provided in a timely manner. It definitely takes determination and creativity to pull this off.

To be effective, many medications must be delivered during specific times related to meals or blood levels of prior doses. Yet, medication timing may be affected by any number of security needs in a correctional setting. Security administration does not often consider the implications of delays or cancellation of medication administration processes when making security decisions. It is often left to health care staff to determine ways to provide the required medication in a timely manner to remain effective in treating the patient condition.

Making Choices

Therefore, it is important to establish a working relationship with security administration and develop a mutual understanding of the therapeutic nature of medication administration and the implication of timing in that therapy. Often a mutually agreeable solution can be reached when medication administration must be delayed or cancelled for a security reason. Here are steps to take when normal medication administration processes are halted.

  • Review medications for the particular timing delay/cancellation to determine if any are time-critical (see table below).
  • Shifting non-time critical medications to the next administration time frame. For example, daily or weekly medication can be moved to a later medication administration time.
  • Consult with prescribers for any gray areas. For example, a stable patient on an anticoagulant may be able to have their medication moved to the evening administration time while a patient with fluctuating INR levels may not be able to delay a dose.
  • Negotiating a method for delivering time-critical medications. Methods can include
    • Cell-side administration: A nurse takes the medication directly to the inmate in the housing unit.
    • Officer escort to the medical unit: Specific patients needing time-critical medications are brought to health care for their doses.

Some settings also allow officer-delivered medication. This requires a clear policy and procedure in addition to a review of the state nurse practice act regarding medication delivery and medication administration. There are many safety concerns with this approach and it is not the best option, if it can be avoided.

In all cases, the process for response to medication administration delay should be written into a policy and procedure that is approved by both security and health care leadership. That way there will be no surprises when an emergency situation like the scenario above arises.

Time Critical and Non-Time Critical Medications

The following listing provided by the Institute of Safe Medication Practice is a helpful guide for making determinations when normal medication administration processes are interrupted.

Time Critical Medications

  • Antibiotics
  • Anticoagulants
  • Insulin
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Immunosuppressive agents
  • Pain medication
  • Medications prescribed to be administered within a specific time period
  • Medications that must be administered apart from other medications for optimal therapeutic effect
  • Medications prescribed more frequently than every 4 hours
  • Medications that require administration related to before, after, or with meals

Non Time Critical Medications

  • Daily, weekly, or monthly medications
  • Medications prescribed more frequently than daily but less than every 4 hours (bid, tid) if not in the time critical listing

How do you handle cancelled medication passes? Share your procedures in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © peerayot – Fotolia.com

Are You Imprisoned by a Messy Med Room?

Cupboard with opened drawerThe medication room is one of the most complex areas of a jail or prison health unit. The set up and maintenance of a medication room can make or break the medication administration process and eat up hours of nursing time every shift. Medication administration can take up to 40% of a nurse’s time in traditional settings. Some correctional nurses spend the majority of their time preparing for, administering, and then documenting medication administration.  Organizing the layout and management of a medication room can smooth the process and reduce error.

Patient Need and Delivery Method

When first organizing a medication room, analyze the needs of the patient population – both size and make-up. For example, a mixed gender population such as that in a large jail will require a wider variety of medication classes than a male-only prison. A large facility with an older patient population will have expanded need for medication delivery and, therefore, larger storage space.

The type of facility, jail or prison, may also dictate medication room needs. A busy jail has a high rate of intake and release meaning many medications are coming in with the patients and awaiting disposal or pick up at release. Storage of these medications can take up space and require an organized system for management.

The method of medication delivery is also a consideration in creating a medication room. If pill line is centralized, a distribution window is often located within the room and medications need to be easily accessed from that location.  A dispersed system where nurses take carts out to housing areas requires room in the medication room to lock the carts when not in use.

The numbers of people working in the room at the same time is also a factor in medication room management. Sufficient space is needed to prepare for medication administration such as supplying the medication cart and organizing equipment.

Room Layout

Many facilities must make due with the room that is available. Fortunate, indeed, are nurses working in facilities with spacious medication rooms. Some facilities merely have a few cupboards in the corner of a clinical room for medications. It is ideal for the room to be laid out according to function. If space is available, a medication room can have areas for the following functions.

  • Ordering, receiving, scanning in and putting stock away
  • Area for the medication carts in easy reach of stock and supplies
  • Locked areas for narcotics and locked box/cabinet with expired or discontinued medication awaiting pick up or shipment to the source pharmacy

Storage Conditions

Consideration should be given to the storage of medications for efficiency and to maintain potency.

  • Bubble packs work well in containers allowing them to stand up so patient and drug name are easy to read
  • Creams, lotions, inhalers, and liquids require separate storage; away from oral preparations to avoid wrong route errors
  • A reliable refrigerator is needed to maintain chilled temperatures for some medications
  • If intravenous services are provided in an infirmary, an additional area for storing IV supplies and solutions may be needed
  • Emergency medications are also kept in the locked medication room and need to be quickly accessible to take to a man-down situation
  • Sharps for medication administration, such as needles and lancets, are also often secured in the medication room

Standardized Processes

The following maintenance systems should be in place to ensure that medications are available when needed for chronic care, acute conditions, and emergency situations.

  • Check in and storage of new medications arriving from the pharmacy vendor
  • Filing of paperwork and order manifests
  • Inspection of expiration dates and stock rotation (esp. emergency medications)
  • Inventory par levels for stock medications, over-the-counter, and protocol medications with standard ordering process
  • Medication return process with pharmacy vendor
  • Monitoring narcotic control
  • Monitoring storage temperatures for room and refrigeration
  • Processing of new prescription orders
  • Reordering of keep-on-person/self-administered medications
  • Shift counts of controlled substances and sharps
  • Turning over the MARs for a new month

Stable Staffing

Consistent staffing in the medication room is a safety factor.  The complexity of the standard medication room processes needs an in-depth understanding of pharmacy processes and patient needs. This requires an individual who values safety and efficiency. Some sites have a pharmacy technician while others have a med room nurse. If “Everyone” is responsible for med room organization, The result is most often a messy med room.

Principles for Medication Room Systems

Here is a summary of key medication room system principles to maintain organization and safety.

Category Principles
Security
  • Keep the medication room locked at all times
  • Reduce the number of staff with key access to the medication room
  • Do not allow food in the medication room
Layout
  • Minimize what is stored in the medication room since access is limited
  • Keep only medications, medication preparation equipment, and controlled items like sharps locked in the medication room to avoid key control issues
Staffing
  • Limit the number of staff who receive, organize, store, maintain, and dispose of medications
  • Have consistent, knowledgeable staff managing the medication room
Storage
  • Keep topical medication clearly labeled and stored separate from oral medications
  • A quality refrigerator and thermometer are needed to maintain proper temperature and humidity for some medications and vaccines
Medication Intake Processing
  • Check medication delivered to the medication room against the delivery manifest and ordering records
  • Report any missing medications to the pharmacy
  • Process and organize new medications such as on medication delivery carts, baskets, or shelves
Medication Organization
  • Organize medication by inmate name or number
  • Medication may also be organized by housing unit or medication rounding system
Medication Disposal
  • Regularly review and rotate stock based on expiration dates
  • Follow environmental regulations when disposing of expired or contaminated medications.
  • Do not flush medication into the septic system
Medication Security
  • Do not allow patients  in the medication room
  • Avoid using inmate porters for medication room cleaning
  • Staff must monitor inmate porters at all times when they are in the medication room
Medication Administration Equipment and supplies
  • Have necessary medication storage and administration equipment and supplies available in the room
  • Supplies can include pill slicers and crushers, disposable pill cups, sharps containers, and drug book

How are you managing the medication room at your jail or prison? Share your tips and tricks in the comments section of this post.

Gayle Burrow, long-time correctional nurse administrator in Portland, OR and frequent Correctional Nursing Today news panelist, contributed significantly to this post. Thanks, Gayle!

Photo Credit: © Oliver Sved – Fotolia.com

Diabetes Primer for the Correctional Nurse

Lori Roscoe, PhD, MSN, CCHP-RN, is a Nurse Practitioner and Correctional Health Consultant in Atlanta, GA. This post is based on her session “Diabetes Primer for the Correctional Nurse” taking place at the Spring 2015 NCCHC Spring Conference on Correctional Health Care in New Orleans, April 11-14, 2015. Learn more about the conference and register HERE.

Stethoscope and device for measuring blood sugar levelIf you have been in correctional nursing for a while, you may have noticed an increase in the number of diabetic patients you are managing. The recently released BJS Special Report on Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisoners and Jail Inmates provides national statistics on the medical conditions of our patent population. It compares this data with that found in 2004 (the last time this information was collected). Diabetes Mellitus (DM) doubled in our patient population in that span of years. That means it is more important than ever to understand this chronic condition and the various treatment modalities available. Consider this nursing sick call situation.

A 42 year old female inmate submits a sick call request about her ankle. She thinks she sprained it when she stumbled while walking to the exercise yard one morning a couple days ago. A chart review indicates she is a Type II diabetic and is on a combination of metformin and glipizide. She was recently treated for a vaginal yeast infection with fluconazole (Monostat). She has no other acute or chronic conditions of note. Her ankle is only slightly swollen and painful when she bears weight.

What Type Is It?

As nurses we learned long ago about Type I and Type II Diabetes. However, we may have an outdated mental shorthand about the differences. For example, you may categorize diabetes by those who need insulin and those who do not. You might also, then, categorize your diabetic patients by those that could be hypoglycemic because of too much insulin and those that couldn’t because they don’t take insulin. But, these categories can be unhelpful. Better is a differentiation based on physiology.

Type I Diabetes – No or Low Insulin Production. In Type I DM the body either stops making insulin or makes too little to effectively manage glucose. Therefore, it is a lack of insulin production.

Type II Diabetes – Inability to Use Insulin. In Type II DM the body loses the ability to use insulin to manage glucose. In this case, insulin is being produced by the body but is not metabolizing the glucose. There also may be inadequate insulin production over time.

Med Madness

Understanding insulin production and use in the body is one part of diabetes management. Another part is understanding the complexity of medication options. Over the past few years, new types of insulin and new medication classes have made the treatment of diabetes complex. Our patients may now be entering the correctional system with unusual insulin regimens and unfamiliar oral medications or medication combinations for maintaining a glucose equilibrium.

Although correctional nurses do not prescribe medications, an understanding of their effect/side effect is necessary to administer these newer preparations. In addition, we may be called upon to interpret a regimen change to a patient; this can be especially true in settings where a limited formulary requires that generic substitution be made to standard treatment while the patient is incarcerated.

Besides effects and side effects, nurses need to be aware of any interactions among medications or with food. Medication timing with or between meals can affect drug absorption and can be difficult to manage in the secure setting where our patients do not have control over when they eat or the type of food available.

Go to the Head of the Class

Categorizing medications by therapeutic class provides an organizing framework for better recall of important information in a clinical situation. A therapeutic class is determined by the drug’s mechanism of action and resulting effects/side effects, and interactions. While Biguanides (like Metformin/Glucophage©) and Sulfonylureas (like Glipizide/Glucotrol©) are common therapeutic classes of antidiabetics, you may be seeing other, newer, classes arrive with patients on intake or being added to the standard formulary. Meglitinides (Repaglinide/Prandin©), D-Phenylalanine Derivatives (Nateglinide/Starlix©),  Thiazolidinediones (Pioglitazone/Actos©), DDP-4 Inhibitors (Sitagliptin/Januvia©), Alpha-Glucosidase Inhibitors (Acarbose/Precose©), and Bile Acid Sequestrants (Colesevelam/Welchol©) are being prescribed more frequently in our setting.

Then, there are the combination antidiabetic medications. These combination pills are often non-formulary for a correctional setting and must be switched to the singular medications once the patient is incarcerated. The patient in the above-mentioned sick call situation was originally taking Metaglip©, which is a combination pill containing both metformin and glipizide. After incarceration, she was switched to the equivalent medications as generic single-medication pills.

Confused? The Joslin Diabetes Center provides a handy table of antidiabetic drug classes and combination pills HERE. You might want to print one out and post on your unit (hint, hint).

How to Get Up to Speed

So, how do you stay up-to-date on diabetes treatment, or, for that matter any of the myriad of new medications and therapies becoming available? Here are a few ideas to incorporate into your professional development plan.

  • Think diabetes (and hypertension) in nursing sick call as both these conditions are on the increase in our patient population according to the BJS report. Our patients may be on new medication regimens or may be suffering from lack of treatment or, even, have undiagnosed conditions.
  • Have a current and easy-to-read drug book handy in the sick call and medication administration areas. No one can keep all that information in active memory.
  • Look up new medications when you first hear of them or begin seeing them on the MAR.
  • Categorize medication knowledge into drug classes and add new classes or new medications to your current mental structure as they become prevalent in your setting.
  • Ask prescribers to provide information about new medications coming into use in your setting. You may want to have an informal education session or have someone from the medical staff speak at a monthly staff meeting.

Chronic Disease and Sick Call Evaluation

Back to that sick call patient with a swollen ankle. The astute nurse, after reviewing the chart and examining the ankle, asked the patient these follow-up questions:

  • Have you been feeling dizzy at all?
  • When does it usually happen?
  • What do you do about it?
  • Have the episodes increased since you started treating the yeast infection?

Once asked, the patient offered that she occasionally feels dizzy but just eats a honeybun from the commissary when that happens. Once she thought about it, she realized that her tumble coincided with just such a dizzy spell and that, yes, she has been getting dizzy more frequently of late. Based on a full assessment of both the acute ankle injury and her diabetes management, this patient had her ankle wrapped and was set up for a provider visit later that day to have her medications adjusted. Glipizide is one Type II oral antidiabetic that can cause hypoglycemia and this side effect is potentiated when taken in combination with fluconazole (Monostat).

How do you keep up with the latest changes in diabetes management? Share your tips in the comments section of this post.

This post is part of a series discussing topics that are addressed during sessions of the 2015 NCCHC Spring Conference on Correctional Health Care. All posts in this series can be found HERE.

Photo Credit: © maya – Fotolia.com

Book Review: Nursing in Criminal Justice Services

Nursing In Criminal Justice ServiesI am intrigued by correctional nursing practice in other countries. So, It was with great interest that I obtained a review copy of “Nursing in Criminal Justice Services” edited by UK correctional nurse experts Ann Norman and Elizabeth Walsh. I interviewed Ann on a prior Correctional Nursing Today Podcast and met both Ann and Elizabeth at the last Custody and Caring Conference in Saskatchewan, Canada. Their book lifts the hood (or should I say bonnet?) on the inner workings of UK criminal justice services and the concerns of nurses working in the system. It provides insight into the similarities and differences in practice between US and UK systems and provides food for thought to apply to correctional nursing in the U.S. Here is my take on some of the gems found in the thirteen chapters of this book.

What’s in a Name?

I remember well our discussions about the title of our specialty on the ANA Taskforce while revising the Correctional Nursing Scope and Standards of Practice a couple years back. We settled on the term “Correctional Nursing” while defining the specialty as being in the Criminal Justice System. The evolution of practice in Britain was a bit different; as the terms for locations in the criminal justice system are different. However, it seems that UK correctional nurses are “Nurses in Criminal Justice Services” and that includes subsets like custody nurses (jail equivalent), prison nurses, and immigration centre nurses. There seems to be some continued discussion on the term for this specialty nursing practice, though. The authors of the chapter on “Professional attitudes and behaviors” (Chapter 12) used the term “secure care workers” and the author for the chapter “Custodial caritas: Beyond rhetoric in caring and custody” (Ch8) also used the term ‘custodial’. I assume that comes from having patients ‘in custody’ but I’m not sure I’m happy with being custodial. It has the feel of mopping floors in American parlance.

Moving from Prisoner to Patient

Of note is the obvious evolution of health care in the UK criminal justice system toward a patient focus and away from a prisoner focus. Editors Norman and Walsh describe in their introduction (Chapter 1) that prison health care has moved from management through HM (Her Majesty’s) Prison Service to the National Health Service (NHS). A move that aligns with general population health care management in the UK and, therefore, creates patient focus. We have seen similar movement over the last decade in US correctional nursing practice as nurses in jails and prisons struggle with the tension, as described in Chapter 1, of “prisoner and patient, custody and care, security and therapy” (pg. 2). A dialog across the pond on these common issues might be fruitful for nurses in our respective justice systems.

A Vulnerable Patient Population

It is no surprise that the patient population in the UK criminal justice system is aging along with those in the US system. Nor is it surprising that there is increasing concern for mental illness services as this segment of the incarcerated population is growing, as well. Other vulnerable groups such as women, youth, and children are addressed. Of note is an increasing emphasis on disability. Chapter 9 discusses “Caring for vulnerable people: Intellectual disability in the criminal justice system”. We would do well to be more cognizant of the vulnerable nature of those in the US system who have learning disabilities, head injury, and low literacy.

The Struggle to Care

The struggle to care is given a fresh (or should I say Freshwater?) perspective in the previously mentioned Chapter 8 on custodial caritas by author Dawn Freshwater. I was moved by her keynote at the 2013 Custody and Caring Conference where she shared the main themes of this chapter. Here she emphasizes the need for compassion and competence in our nursing practice and highlights the dynamics of a caring relationship. I must admit, this gem is my favorite chapter in the book and has provided many a moment of reflection on the caring/custody friction we all feel.

Making a Connection

Finally, I enjoyed reading about the connection correctional nurses have with some areas we might think of as peripheral to our practice. Chapter 4 on “Forensic nurse examiners: Caring for victims of sexual assault”, Chapter 7 “On the out: Supporting offenders in the community”, and Chapter 11 “Learning opportunities from inquests” got me thinking about our need to ‘think outside the box (or bars?) about our correctional nursing practice.

Conclusion

While nursing in the UK criminal justice system may have ‘grown up’ under different conditions, our key concerns as professional nurses within the system remains the same. The patient population and unique work environment create both opportunities and barriers for meaningful patient outcomes. The seventeen chapter contributors to the book “Nursing in Criminal Justice Services” have helped to clarify these issues for British nurses and, by doing so, provide an interesting reading opportunity for us all. Do put this book on your reading list!

What are your thoughts on correctional nursing practice in other countries? Share your ideas in the comments section of this post.

Pain Management in Patients with Substance Use Disorders

Aleksander Shalshin, MD, CCHP is the former Deputy Medical Director Correctional Health Services for the City of New York Department of Health currently in private practice. This post is based on his session “Pain Management in Patients with Substance Use Disorders” taking place at the 2015 NCCHC Spring Conference on Correctional Health Care in New Orleans, April 11-14. Learn more about the conference and register HERE.

Addiction wooden sign with a beach on backgroundPain in some form is one of the most common symptoms that bring patients to nursing sick call. Even in traditional practice settings pain is often undertreated and many health care practitioners are particularly concerned about medicating a patient with a history of substance abuse. This is magnified in the correctional setting where substance use disorders are common in the incarcerated patient population. Yet, pain is a legitimate patient concern that we need to manage effectively.

Addiction Complicates Pain Treatment

Substance users present several challenges for pain treatment. First, use of psychoactive drugs results in the development of drug tolerance so pain medication at normal dose levels may be ineffective. Additionally, those with addictions appear to have decreased pain tolerance and, therefore, an increased perception of their pain experience.

The majority of inmates are immediately withdrawn from drugs and alcohol on entry into the criminal justice system. Withdrawal can be intensely uncomfortable, exacerbating any underlying chronic pain. Once withdrawn, practitioners can be concerned that pain treatment may contribute to a relapse.

Finally, pain is subjective, often without any objective confirming characteristics. Clinicians may not trust the patient to accurately describe the level of pain and assume ‘drug seeking’ behavior when patients with a history of substance abuse identify a need for pain treatment.

Pharmacologic Treatment Options

Opiates are the go-to drugs for pain treatment however other drug categories are underutilized and may be good options for this patient population. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and even tricyclic antidepressants have been helpful therapies. Depending on the source of pain, topical agents or muscle relaxants may be useful.

When opiates are necessary, they present some concerns in the correctional setting. Security of narcotics must be maintained in the medical unit and precautions against diversion during administration may need to be taken. For example, some settings crush and float narcotics so that the patient is less likely to ‘cheek’ pills for hoarding or barter on the prison black market. Liquid narcotics may also be used for the same reasons. Newer delivery methods such as the dissolving film available for buprenorphine (Suboxone) can also help assure the right patient gets the right dose.

Non Pharmacologic Treatment Options

Non pharmacologic treatments of pain are also often underutilized modalities; but, can play an important role in effectively treating chronic pain for this patient population. Depending on the resources in a particular correctional setting, physical therapy programs and exercise plans can be of benefit. Nurses can play an important role in initiating non pharmacologic treatment options for chronic pain. Treatments are discussed in more depth in this post on chronic pain and this post on managing arthritis behind bars.

Overcoming Resistance in the Correctional Setting

There can be significant resistance to pain management in the correctional setting. Officers and administration may harbor fear of diversion or manipulation in obtaining narcotics from health care staff. Even providers and nurses can have biases against pain treatment for patients with a history of a substance disorder. It takes a multidisciplinary process to be most effective. It also takes organization-wide education about pain treatment and how it is managed for this patient population. A good relationship among the disciplines of security and health care is a must.

Online Resources

American Society for Pain Management Nursing Position Statement: Pain Management in Patients with Substance Use Disorders

Pain Management in Patients with Substance-Use Disorders (American College of Clinical Pharmacology)

This is the first of a series of posts discussing topics addressed during sessions of the 2015 NCCHC Spring Conference on Correctional Health Care. Find all posts and podcasts on conference sessions HERE.

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What have been your experiences with pain management for inmate-patients with history of a substance use disorder? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © gustavofrazao – Fotolia.com

You Are A Courageous Nurse!

little girl wearing a superhero costumeDid you know you were courageous in accepting the challenge to work with our incarcerated patient population and in our locked-in work environment? Many nurses are not that bold. They do not seek out experiences that involve security escorts, the clanging of automatic barred doors, or the need to have their personal belongings searched when entering and leaving the workplace. Yes, you are a courageous nurse!

Three Types of Courage

Courage is key to effective correctional nursing. Bill Treasurer, in his book Courage Goes to Work: How to Build Backbones, Boost Performance, and Get Results, describes three types of courage we need to develop.

TRY Courage

TRY Courage is described by Treasurer as “the courage of initiating an action— making first attempts, pursuing pioneering efforts, and stepping up to the plate”. TRY Courage motivates us to act when needed – even if it is hard. Have you had to advocate for the needs of one of your patients? Have you had to confront cruel or disrespectful actions of a staff member? Have you had to address inappropriate patient behavior? It takes courage. You are a courageous nurse.

TRUST Courage

TRUST Courage is described by Treasurer as “the courage of confidence in others— letting go of the need to control situations or outcomes, having faith in people, and being open to direction and change”. TRUST Courage allows us to let go of controlling the outcomes of what we do. We are responsible for right action, but can’t control the outcomes of those actions. Do you have the courage to take a right action and let go of the outcome? You are a courageous nurse.

TELL Courage

TELL Courage is described by Treasurer as “the courage of voice— raising difficult issues, providing tough feedback, and sharing unpopular opinions”. TELL Courage is the courage to speak up when the issue is difficult or you are the only one in the situation who is disturbed. Correctional nurses are sometimes put in situations where there are no other health professionals available for consultation. Social pressure might be applied to ‘go along’ with the situation. Have you spoken up in a difficult situation? You are a courageous nurse.

What Are You Afraid Of?

Navy SEAL, Brent Gleesen, knows a bit about overcoming fears and addresses some common fears of leaders in a Forbes article. Using this list as a basis, here are my suggestions for common fears correctional nurses may need to face.

Fear of Criticism

Most people have some concern over being criticized, even if the criticism is delivered gently. Correctional nurses can find themselves working in a very negative work culture where any new idea is ‘shot down’ before it can even take flight. Nurses can also work in facilities where any act of care or concern gets labeled by colleagues as ‘Inmate Loving’ or ‘Hug a Thug’ activity. Overcoming fear of criticism is necessary to fully engage in professional nursing activity behind bars.

Fear of Consequences

The militaristic organizational structure of some correctional settings makes the negative consequences of words and actions very real. Correctional nurses have been banned from facilities for questioning an unethical practices or taking action on behalf of a patient. Words and actions need careful consideration in light of this possibility.

Fear of Failure

Sometimes it is just easier not to try at all rather than risk the chance for failure. Like fear of criticism, this fear is concerned with the acceptance of others whose regard we value. Fear of failure can cause correctional nurses to avoid addressing system issues that are affecting health care delivery.

Fear of Responsibility

Surprisingly, the possibility of success can also lead to fear. What if an idea is accepted and now needs implemented? The responsibility for making a change often rests on the one who suggests it. Like fear of failure, fear of responsibility can lead to inaction.

Take the First Step

Are you afraid to be courageous? The good news is, you have the capacity for gaining more courage. Fear is an invitation to courage – accept that invitation!  Yes, you can build your courage. It is a learnable skill like all your other nursing abilities.  “The important thing is to take the first step. Bravely overcoming one small fear gives you courage to take on the next” – Daisku Ikeda

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What courageous thing have you done recently in your correctional profession? Share your experience in the comments section of this post.

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February 2015 Correctional Health Care News Round Up (Podcast Episode 92)

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cnt-podcast_cover_art-1400x1400Gayle Burrow and Denise Rahaman return to talk about this month’s correctional health care news items*.

Medical Problems Of State And Federal Prisoners And Jail Inmates, 2011-12

Our first news item is the publication of a US Department of Justice special report on the Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12. This is a long awaited update to their prior reports over a decade ago. The report validates what correctional nurses know to be true: inmates are more likely to have a chronic or infectious condition than the general population and female prisoners have more chronic conditions than males. A few interesting findings:

Clallam County working to avoid measles outbreak in jail

The Clallam county jail in Port Angeles, Washington is now providing measles vaccination for inmates. They are concerned about an outbreak after their Department of Health confirmed the state’s fourth active case of measles recently. As you may know, a measles outbreak has hit California traced to an active case in Disneyland. Will jails and prisons be ramping up measles vaccination?

When Prisoners Are Patients

Next up is an opinion piece that hit the New York Times about dealing with prisoners as patients in traditional settings. Nurse Teresa Brown shares her experiences caring for one prisoner for several weeks. She talks about giving ‘needed, accessible care to the most despised and potentially violent among us’. That surely sums up what correctional nurses do. Insights from the article helpful to correctional nurses include a need to separate the patient from their crimes, maintaining a different perspective than officers, and wondering why necessary health care isn’t provided to all citizens, not just incarcerated ones.

Long-running public service project sends Johns Hopkins students behind prison walls

The Johns Hopkins Gazette tells the story of Hopkin’s students tutoring inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center. The University’s Jail Tutoring Project currently has 36 undergrads tutoring inmates from the general population, substance abusers working to maintain sobriety and some with mental health issues. The program has been in place for 40 years and stories from the students and the inmates indicate that it is changing lives.

What are your thoughts on this month’s news? Do you agree with our panelists? Share your comments below.

* Views of the panelists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employers, their clients, or their families.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Behind Bars

PTSD signsThe past life experiences of many incarcerated patients lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, PTSD develops after a terrifying event or when a person is regularly put in danger or in a deadly situation. Inmate patient histories frequently include physical or sexual abuse and many have been involved in violent crime. Incarcerated military veterans can also exhibit signs of PTSD. Imprisonment can intensify the PTSD experience as some facilities have an inmate culture of intimidation, coercion, and victimization.

Survivor Response to Trauma

Individuals respond to trauma in various ways based on their own background, developmental phase and the type of trauma inflicted. Like the pain experience, a survivor’s response to trauma is unique. However, there are commonalities among these responses. Here are three main categories of symptoms related to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

  • Reexperiencing the event. Your patient may experience nightmares and flashbacks of a traumatic event. For example, a woman who had been sexually assaulted as a child may have difficulty sleeping as memories of the assault flood into her mind when she tries to relax.
  • Avoidance. You patient may become anxious when confronted with objects or activities that can be associated with the trauma. For example, a stern command from an officer may trigger domestic violence memories. Severe manifestations of avoidance can lead to social isolation and even psychological dissociation.
  • Hyperarrousal. Victims of trauma can also exhibit increased irritability and exaggerated responses to environmental danger signals. For example, the patient described above may run for the corner of the room screaming when given the command by the officer.

Emotional and Psychological Support Interventions

With these survivor responses in mind, you can provide emotional and psychological support for your patients who are dealing with PTSD. It can be challenging to balance objectivity and empathy when dealing with victims of violence.

  • Establish rapport. A patient can pick up a caring attitude and interest by facial expression and body language. Eye contact and listening show concern and establish rapport without getting personal with the patient.
  • Respect and patience. As you listen to the patient, actively attend to being respectful and patient. This provides emotional support.
  • Help the patient express their feelings. Traumatized patients will have difficulty finding words to communicate their distress and the details of their experience. Fear, sadness, or rage is hard to describe when the feelings are present. Helping victims give words to their feelings can be very therapeutic. Don’t impose your own words on the experience, but, rather, help your patient find their own words.

Counseling and Crisis Intervention

A traumatized patient will, most likely, need professional support beyond what you can provide in a brief nursing encounter. Seek out other possible interventions available in your setting. Mental health services, group therapy, peer-to-peer support, or outside resources may be part of support services that can be provided for patients with severe PTSD.

Do you see signs of PTSD in your incarcerated patients? How do you handle it? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

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