Compassion Fatigue (Podcast Episode 100)


Episode 100Sonya Khilnani, PhD, CCHP, a licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral health manager for Corizon in Brentwood, TN, joins Lorry to talk about compassion fatigue in correctional health care practice. This was the topic of an article she wrote for the Spring 2015 CorrectCare magazine.

Telltale Signs of Compassion Fatigue

We are in a ‘sea of trauma’ in the correctional setting as many in the patient population have past and present traumatic history. This vicarious exposure to trauma results in work stress over time. Unlike other causes of burnout such as long work hours or coworker strife, compassion fatigue is caused by absorbing trauma from our patients and being drained through helping and ‘caring for’ traumatized patients. A nurse who also has a traumatic past will be at an elevated risk of empathizing with patients and, thus, triggering memories that enhances the potential for compassion fatigue.

Signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Social isolation
  • Sleep difficulty
  • Nightmares
  • Drug or alcohol overuse

Don’t Neglect Yourself!

Intentional self-care is important to prevent compassion fatigue. Being mindful of our own mental and emotional health is a first step. It is vital, then, to regularly reflect on your own practice. Counseling may be helpful and available through the employer.

Self-care activities can include:

  • Openly share about challenges with other staff
  • Education about compassion fatigue
  • Regular physical exercise
  • Meditation or relaxation

Set limits and calendar in ‘me’ time to recenter yourself and replenish your reserves. Hobbies or recreational activities could be helpful.

Episode 100 Celebration!

Fellow nurse podcasters Jamie Davis of The Nursing Show, Rachel Silva of The Nurse Practitioner Show, and Keith Carlson of The Nurse Keith Show, send greetings and congratulations on Correctional Nursing Today’s reaching 100 episodes.

Links Mentioned in the Podcast

Blog Post: Ways Your Patient Can Help You Avoid a Medication Error

Audible Free Trial

Additional Information

Read my post Correctional Nurse Self-Care: Preventing Compassion Fatigue on the Essentials of Correctional Nursing Blog.

How are you dealing with compassion fatigue? Share your tips in the comments section of this post.

Book Review: Guide to the Code of Ethics for Nurses

Book Review: Guide to the Code of Ethics for NursesThis spring marks the second anniversary of the release of the Cleveland captives. The horrendous story of the teenage girls abducted and sexually abused for a decade is hard to think about. My heart goes out to them as they struggle to come to terms with what they have experienced. At about the same time as newspapers were marking the anniversary of the freeing of these captives, I received the latest edition of the Guide to the Code of Ethics for Nurses by Marsha D. M. Fowler, published by the American Nurses Association.  This second edition was developed to match the 2015 revision of the Code of Ethics for Nurses. This combination was a strong reminder that we work in a specialty full of ethical issues requiring us to cling to an Ethical Code to guide our professional practice. For, you see, nurses had to provide health care to Ariel Castro in both a jail and prison setting before he committed suicide in his prison cell. As correctional nurses we must come to terms with providing nursing care to unlovely and unlovable people.

The Guide to the Code of Ethics provides a real-world application of the key principles of the Code of Ethics for Nurses and explains the additions and revisions of the newest code revision. Its stated purpose is to

  • Set the Code within its developmental context
  • Provide resources that further the readers’ understanding of the Code
  • Identify pivotal documents that have and continue to inform nursing ethics
  • Guide nurses in the application of the Code

Application is assisted through illustrative cases and group discussion questions. While not advocating any particular ethical decision-making model, the author looks to the nursing process as a framework for assessing an ethical situation, developing a plan of action, and evaluating the outcome.

Virtue and Obligation

Since the inception of the Code in 1950, the ethical framework of our profession has been virtue (values) based; with a foundation in ethical principlism. The principles of autonomy, monmalefecence, beneficence, and justice underpin the nine provisions of the Code. Our professional obligations, then, are based on the outworking of these principles in practice and in relationship with our patients, our colleagues, and society.  For example, the key themes of the Code are compassion, social justice, care, and human rights; all application of the above ethical principles as they would relate to nursing practice.

Although the foundational principles of ethical nursing practice have not changed, overtime, nursing practice has expanded and gained complexity. Society and social concerns have progressed, as well. The 2015 Code of Ethics for Nurses reflects this progression and the Guide to the Code explains and interprets these changes in light of nursing practice.

Nursing Self-Care

One area of expanded concern in the new Code and, therefore, discussed extensively in the Guide is that of self-care. Provision Five of the Code of Ethics had previously focused on the nurse’s duty to self but the provision was further developed to more fully examine the implications of this duty. Promotion of personal health, safety, and well-being has been added as an interpretive statement to the provision and this is developed in the Guide. Compassion fatigue is a very real correctional nursing issue, as I have discussed elsewhere. Nurses have an ethical obligation to take care of themselves for both their own well-being and as a role model to our patient population.

Civic Professionalism

Also expanded in the Code and, therefore, the Guide is the concept of civic professionalism as an ethical obligation. As the world becomes smaller and nursing practice expands, we have the ability and obligation to seek out social justice in the wider arena of community and political life. “Nurses act to change those aspects of social structures that detract from health and well-being.” Our unique position as the most trusted of health care professionals leads to an obligation to use that position for the good of our patient population. For correctional nurses this may mean engagement in such issues as improving literacy, supporting and advocating for community-based health services for our patients re-entering society, or even challenging the oppressive conditions of confinement in some correctional settings. The Guide provides the background of these values and obligations found in Provision Nine of the Code.

Application to Correctional Nursing

The Guide to the Code of Ethics for Nurses is a book worthy of space on every correctional unit’s bookshelf. A personal copy that can be marked, highlighted, and dog-eared is recommended for every correctional nurse. Here are my suggestions for maximum benefit.

  • Start a unit book club and tackle one of the nine provisions each month. Try to apply the case studies to a situation in your setting.
  • Debrief your next critical incident using the Code as a guide. What are the virtues and obligations inherent in the situation?
  • Post the Code in your breakroom to keep it in active memory. Here is a poster version and a bookmark version.

How are you applying the Code of Ethics for Nurses in your setting? Share your tips in the comments section of this post.

Four Ways Your Patient Can Help You Avoid A Medication Error

Four Ways Your Patient Can Help You Avoid a Medication ErrorA well-informed patient can be a great assistance in reducing medication error. The more patients understand about the medications they are taking, the better they can assist with monitoring treatment practices and questioning when unfamiliar medication is offered. Here are four ways to engage your correctional patient in the medication process to avoid error.

  1. Be Sure Your Patients Know the Important Stuff

Patients are best able to contribute to medication safety by having both general and specific knowledge of their medication program. Low general health literacy contributes to misunderstanding and gaps in patient medication. The level of understanding of the medical process, and specifically the medications ordered for treatment, affects medication adherence, whether provided by direct observation or through a self-administration process.

  • Medication allergy. General knowledge includes an understanding of any medication allergies a patient has and the symptoms they see when taking these medications. Indeed, understanding the difference between side effects and allergies are of particular importance for proper treatment. For example, a patient may state that they are allergic to aspirin when what they have experienced is stomach burning when they have taken aspirin on an empty stomach. Therefore, it is important to obtain descriptive information about medication allergies when documenting a health history.
  • Medication effect and side effect. Even when patients come into the criminal justice system on long-term chronic medications they may have misconceptions about why they are taking the medication, the expected effects of the medication on their condition, and what side effects they should be monitoring. There is even greater need for this information if new medications are added to the regimen.
  • Self-administration practices. Self-administration practices such as dosing and timing of medication self-administration can be an added challenge for patients, especially those with low literacy skills. It may take more than mere labeling instructions to be sure patients are appropriately self-administering medications allowed in the keep-on-person program. Besides basic information about medication effect, side effect, dosing, and timing, patients should be able to identify an interactions with food or other medications as well as any precautions that need to be taken such as avoiding direct sunlight or not stopping the medication abruptly. Because incarceration can restrict movement and meals, health care staff should also be sure self-administration practices are adapted to the particular situation of the patient.
  1. Give Them a Way to Communicate Directly with You

A knowledgeable patient is particularly important in a correctional setting where security barriers can cause medication delay or omission. A direct communication process between the patient and the health care staff assist in allowing patients to speak up when they have concerns about medication administration schedules. Many inmates use the sick call slip process for communication with health care staff, although other systems may need to be initiated if this is burdensome to the sick call process. For example, some settings have electronic communication through a kiosk system and others have a phone message system for inmate/health care communication.

  1. Help Them Understand Their Role

Incarcerated patients may need to be directly told to speak up about their medical condition and to question medication administration that does not fit with their understanding of their medical treatment. The power-over structures within a correctional setting does not encourage proactivity or self-efficacy in the patient population. Health care staff need to encourage and support patient participation in the care plan, including actively addressing unfamiliar medication administration.  Staff administering medications must be willing to explain any changes in the regimen. Here are a few common times when medications may be unfamiliar to a patient.

  • New patients may have medications switched from non-formulary brands to generic equivalents on intake into the facility.
  • Patients may not understand the information provided by a prescriber regarding a dosage change.
  • A new medication formulation including a change in size or color of the pill may be used while patient-specific medication is shipped from the pharmacy.
  1. Create a Solid Medication Self-Administration System

Involving the patient in administering their own medications can improve patient safety and assist with developing independent health habits. As identified earlier, patient education on drug and food interactions is important; so is information about medication effects and side effects. Confirm that the patient understands what situations require medical attention and the process for obtaining more medication when the supply is dwindling. Here are some tips for a safe and effective keep-on-person (KOP) medication program.

  • Establish a system for distributing and reordering KOP medications. Be sure patients understand the system and their responsibilities. Many medical units ask that patients show up at a treatment or pill line to reorder medications when there are about 10 doses left. This allows time for order filling.
  • Incorporate KOP medication into the Medication Administration Record (MAR) process. All medications provided to the patient should be documented in a single place to assist in communication among care providers and decrease confusion in the treatment plan.
  • Be sure every medication card has the patient’s name and ID, as well as medication and prescription information. During cell sweeps, medications will be confiscated if not in the possession of the person whose name is on the card.
  • If providers give out medications during medical sick call, sometimes called ‘Provider Packs’, the medication cards should have the inmate’s name and ID written on them by the provider along with date and signature.
  • In like fashion, over-the-counter medication distributed by nurses during sick call should be labeled for the individual inmate with date and nurse signature.
  • Security staff should be able to confirm the rightful owner of any medication found in the general prison population.
  • A regular spot-check process for patient compliance with KOP medications is helpful. Randomly check KOP cards in mid-cycle to determine proper use. For example, twice a week, a number of inmates with KOP medications could be called to report to the medical unit with all KOP cards. Nurses can use this time to validate proper use and reinforce patient teaching.

How do you involve your patients in monitoring their medications? Share your tips in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © Vera Kuttelvaserova

May 2015 Correctional Health Care News Round Up (Podcast Episode 99)


cnt-podcast_cover_art-1400x1400CJ Young, Sue Smith, and Gayle Burrow join Lorry to talk about the latest correctional health care news.

 Mentally ill inmate died of water intoxication in Michigan prison, lawsuit says

In the first story, a mentally ill inmate in a Michigan prison died of water intoxication caused by psychogenic polydipsia. He was a severe schizophrenic. It is only a brief article and there are gaps in available information, but it is a reminder that there can be dangerous physiological ramifications to psychological conditions. In Podcast Episode 94 I talked with Dr. Scott Eliason about this condition. He provides some good information for managing those with this condition.

Nova Institution for Women sees spike in self-injury incidents

Our next story is from the Canadian System. Incidents of self-injury are up in their federal prison for women in Nova Scotia. The Nova Institution for Women has seen increasing self-injury events in the inmate population. Self-injury is defined as hunger strike, overdoes interruption, or self-inflicted injuries. Usually deliberate self-harm does not include suicide attempts but, instead, head banging, opening old wounds, inserting objects into the body, burning….things like that. Often these physical injuries relieve psychological stress.

Navy will not discharge Guantanamo nurse

Next up is the conclusion to a story being following for some time. A military nurse serving in Guantanamo refused an order to force-feed a hunger striking detainee and was brought up on charges. This story was originally discussed in Podcast Episode 86.In this latest news item, we read that the nurse was not discharged for refusing to force-feed. A good outcome to a difficult situation. What can we learn from this nurse for our own practice in the ethically challenging correctional setting?

 Hard Labor: A doula offers a little comfort for a birth behind bars.

The final story is certainly good news for pregnant inmates in the Minnesota prison system. The Minnesota Prison Doula Project provides weekly maternity classes and birthing support for pregnant inmates in the system. DONA International, an organization promoting the doula process, provides a definition:

The word “doula” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “a woman who serves” and is now used to refer to a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth; or who provides emotional and practical support during the postpartum period.

Studies have shown that when doulas attend birth, labors are shorter with fewer complications.

That certainly seems the case for these Minnesota inmates. Panelists discuss the many benefits of such a program.

Which news item was the most helpful this month? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Worth the Risk? Double-Checking High Risk Medication Calculations

Double checkOliver usually worked the pm shift at the prison but was helping out in a staffing pinch over the summer vacation period. He regularly does the evening medication round so volunteering to do morning medications didn’t seem like a bad deal. Everyone is harried as there was a man-down called for one of the housing units and the patient is being settled in the infirmary. Although there is a standing policy to have anticoagulant doses double-checked by another nurse, he decides to do the simple calculation himself. Without a calculator handy, he does the math in his head and documents that he had administered 7.5 mg of warfarin to Inmate Strump. In reality, he just gave double the prescribed dose as the tablets were 10mg rather than 5mg, as he thought he was using.

The need to calculate a dose based on available forms or strengths of medication can lead to mathematical error. If at all possible, medication formulation needs to be in the strength necessary for the prescribed dose. When medication is being titrated, like the warfarin above, the changes come too fast for this pharmacy oversight. Nurses often need to calculate the dose and convert to available pill strength from stock.

Even simple math calculations can be challenging in a noisy housing unit with many distractions. While limiting the variety of strengths of various medications in stock may reduce the error of selecting the wrong strength of medication for a particular patient; relying on only one stock strength of medication increases the need to split scored medications and to make on-the-spot mental mathematical calculations. Both increase error risk.

Calculation Double-Checks

Complicated calculations or high-risk medication calculations call for an added level of safety. We cannot always see our own mistakes and a set of independent ‘fresh eyes’ are needed in high risk situations. However, double-checking medication doses is time consuming and other nurses are not always available to stop and help. So selective use of an independent double-check process before administering certain medications is recommended by the Institute of Safe Medication Practices

What to Double Check

Health care safety organizations such as the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) publish lists of high risk medications based on ongoing analyses of life-threatening medication administration errors. Some medications make the list based on look-alike/sound-alike qualities and the dangerous patient outcome if the wrong medication is administered. An example of this might be confusing MetFORMin (Glucophage) with MetroNIDAZOLE (Flagyl). Most, however, are high risk related to the danger of providing an incorrect overdose. This is of particular concern for pediatric, oncology, and geriatric patient populations as they have less reserves to process an inappropriate dose and may have complex medication regimens prone to error. Categories of high risk medications in acute care settings according to the Joint Commission and ISMP include anticoagulants, opiates, insulins, chemotherapeutics, and sedatives.

What high-risk medications should require a double check in the correctional setting? Certainly, if chemotherapeutics are provided, particularly as an IV additive, they should be independently checked by another nurse before administration. But, how about other, more common, categories such as anticoagulants and insulins? Both medications can have a seriously adverse patient outcome if an incorrect dose is administered. Insulin, in particular, has many strengths and formulations; making administration errors even more likely.

Too Much Trouble

A major reason many settings do not enforce a double-check policy (even when it is on the books) is because it is time consuming and often incorrectly performed. Here are some recommendations from ISMP on how to perform an effective medication double-check process:

  • Only use a double check process for the highest risk medications otherwise the process is likely to fall to the wayside due to time and availability issues.
  • Make sure the double check is totally independent. The second nurse should check the order, calculate the dose, and compare to the first calculation without additional information or interpretation. This reduces the chance that the double-check follows the same error path as the first calculation.
  • Don’t let the double-check process become superficial. Make the review an active engagement in the process. Do not assume it is correct because the practitioner is a trusted and high-level colleague. Mistakes happen to everyone!
  • Establish a standardized process (mental or written checklist) for calculation double-checks. Consider these items in the list.
    • Is this the medication ordered?
    • Is this the dose ordered?
    • How is the dose calculated? Redo the calculation independent of the original calculation.
    • Is this the correct patient?
    • Is this the correct time for administration?
    • Is this the correct route for administration?

Although standardized dose calculation double-checks are an important part of reducing medication administration error, they cannot overcome a faulty system and should not be the only safety mechanism in place.

Do you use medication calculation double checks in your setting? Share your experiences in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © raywoo  – fotolia

Crushing Injury: Are You Helping or Harming When You Crush Pills?

Inmate Dexter was found cheeking his psyche meds. The facility has a blanket policy that all narcotics are crushed and, in addition, all pills are crushed for patients found to divert their medications. This morning he is to receive Effexor XR, Ery-Tab, and Kaletra. Now what?

Some correctional systems require that medications be crushed to avoid diversion. There are few studies about this practice and many concerns. Besides the increased time needed to crush medications, some formulations are not absorbed correctly once crushed. In particular, time release capsules and slow-release tablets are based on the medication remaining in the manufactured format for correct absorption. Other medications are caustic to the intestinal system and require enteric coating to avoid adverse effects. Thus, pharmacy experts strongly advise against crushing both time-released and enteric coated preparations. The ISMP provides a detailed listing of medications that should not be crushed.

Little is available on the practice and outcome of crushing medications in the correctional setting but much can be learned from observation of nursing practice in long-term care. One study in Australia found many medications being crushed with communal crushing equipment and multiple medications being crushed at the same time. Both practices can cause adverse effects or expose patients to an allergic reaction according to experts.

Harm to Patient – Harm to Nurse

Other concerns with indiscriminate crushing of medications is the possibility of teeth staining and irritation of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach lining.  Binders or other substances included in the tablet formation may be needed to buffer Ph or other irritating qualities of the medication. The erythromycin (Ery-Tab) that Inmate Dexter is to receive is enteric coated for this purpose.

Opening capsules or crushing medications can be harmful to staff, as well as patients. Exposure to active ingredients may be carcinogenic and harmful to an unborn fetus (teratogenic or fetotoxic). Sensitive individuals may have an allergic response. In the example above, Kaletra should not be crushed and a pregnant staff member should not come in contact with the active ingredients.

Harm to the Treatment Plan

The effectiveness of medication can be altered or eliminated by crushing. For example, medications that are sublingual or effervescent should not be crushed for this reason.

Medication toxicity can result when sustained-release or extended release tablets are crushed or capsules opened. The patient may receive the entire dose immediately rather than over a longer time period, as intended by the formulation. Inmate Dexter’s Effexor XR is such a medication.

Sometimes you can immediately identify these danger medications by their prefix or suffix. Common controlled-delivery indicators are:

      • CC
      • CD
      • CR
      • ER
      • LA
      • Retard
      • SA
      • Slo-
      • SR
      • XL
      • XR
      • XT

Time Pressed

Crushing medication properly is a time-consuming operation that can increase the time-stress of medication administration, thus increasing error risk. So, medication crushing should not be required indiscriminately but used judiciously when necessary for the patient and patient community’s safety. For example, some settings limit crushing to highly abused medications such as psychotropics and narcotics. Other settings require crushing for individual patients who have been identified as diverting their medications like Inmate Dexter.

Avoiding Crushing Injury

Based on the literature (also here, here, and here) the following safety measure should be considered when crushing medications.

  • Establish a list of common medications that should not be crushed.
  • Limit crushing to high risk medications or high risk patients to reduce error potential and increase medication administration efficiency.
  • Require the prescriber to order crushing as the mode of PO administration.
  • Require pharmacist oversight of crushing (through the order) as a double check that medications ordered for crushing are appropriate for this delivery method.
  • Transcribe crushing as the route of administration onto the MAR.
  • Make every attempt to obtain the medication in liquid formation to avoid crushing.
  • Only crush medications with approved devices. Use a fully self-contained device such as this one. Avoid mortar and pestle or twist devices that need cleaning between doses.
  • Use individual packets with communal crushing devices to eliminate the potential for mixing medications.
  • Do not make a slurry of combined medications. Each crushed medication should be administered separately to avoid incompatibilities.
  • Mix crushed medications with water and not food (like applesauce) or other liquids (like juice) that might interact with the medication.

Another good practice is to eliminate highly abused medications from the formulary; replacing them with an appropriate substitute of lesser abuse potential. Quetiapine (Seroquel), gabapentin (Neurontin), and bupropion (Wellbutrin) have been eliminated as options from some jail formularies due to the high level of abuse in the particular inmate population. While this may reduce abuse, it is important to have alternative medications on formulary to use when therapy is needed for an actual patient condition.

What about Inmate Dexter?

Inmate Dexter’s medications were delayed while the med nurse consulted with the pharmacy about options for his daily medications. Although not the most convenient solution; it was the safest and best practice. Later that day she set up a nurse sick call appointment for him to discuss the reason for his medication diversion. The root cause needs investigated. For example: Is it because he doesn’t want to take the med? Is it a medication that someone else is pressuring him for? Is it something he thinks he can sell? Armed with this information, she plans to discuss the situation with the provider to see if there are any alternatives such as medication discontinuation or exchange.

What do you do when pills need crushing in your practice setting? Share your procedure and best practices in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © Rob Byron –

Should Correctional Nurses be Compassionate?

Heart of IceA while back a blog reader emailed me to thank me for providing visibility for our specialty and to take issue with my blog byline: Inspiring Compassionate Professional Nursing in the Criminal Justice System. Seems that the word ‘compassion’ was not sitting well with this nurse leader who actually taught new correctional nurses to “check their compassion at the gate before they come in”. The email concluded with this statement: “I encourage new nurses to show compassion in the care they provide, but I clearly define the difference between showing it and actually feeling it. On the continuum of emotion, compassion is incredibly close to love and I challenge anyone in our profession to justify using the word love in the way we care for our patients.”

I appreciated hearing from this reader (email me at anytime!) and have been pondering the perspect of showing compassion and not feeling compassion for a while now. Is that possible? What would that look like? Is it dangerous to deliver compassionate professional nursing in the criminal justice system?

The Issue

The compassion issue in correctional nursing hinges on the friction of care and custody so often encountered in our setting. Most correctional nurses work in a security conscious para-military setting where the predominant culture is punitive and uncaring. Many correctional patients live lives based on deceit and manipulation. How do we practice nursing in this environment? I discuss this issue in my book – The Wizard of Oz Guide to Correctional Nursing. It is a fitting analogy that nurses in the criminal justice system find themselves in a strange land with very different colleagues, language, and culture. Yet, we must remain professional nurses, all the same. Trying to ‘fit in’ in this new Land of Oz can lead to some dysfunctional work styles, as I describe in this earlier post.

Defining Compassion

One of the difficulties encountered right away is defining what compassion really means as it relates to health care practice. On a search for this answer I came across the national debate on compassion in healthcare currently going on within the British National Health System (NHS). Their chief nurse set out a vision for compassion in practice in 2012 that led to this definition of compassion.

Compassion is how care is given through relationships based on empathy, respect and dignity - it can also be described as intelligent kindness, and is central to how people perceive their care.

A concept analysis can sometimes help identify important components of the meaning of a word. Here are some key elements gleaned from an analysis of compassion done by a nurse researcher:

  • Entering in to the suffering of another
  • An internalized motivation for doing good
  • Personal engagement in the alleviation of suffering
  • Therapeutic empathy
  • Empowers to not only acknowledge, but to act toward removing suffering or pain

In Defense of Compassion

Although poorly defined, compassion has been identified as foundational to professional nursing practice in key documents. For example, The Code of Ethics for Nurses Provision 1 states:

The nurse practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person.

The Correctional Nurse Scope and Standards of Practice list principles that guide correctional nursing practice (pg. 17). Among them is this one:

  • Professionalism, compassion, care, and concern are displayed in every patient encounter.

So, it seems that compassion is a part of ethical practice and written in to our specialty’s guidelines.

Better to be Compassionless?

But, maybe correctional nursing is so different from nursing in other specialties that we must leave our compassion at the entry gate each shift. Maybe it is too risky to by empathetic to the suffering of our patients. Maybe we need to be emotionally detached from our patients and the care we render in order to maintain equilibrium. I think it is something worth pondering and may just be one of the most challenging dilemmas of nursing in the criminal justice system.

So, what do you think? Is compassionate professional care an inappropriate goal for nursing in the criminal justice system? Help me decide if I need to change my blog byline.

Photyo Credit: © Stocksnapper –

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)


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.

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