Jennifer didn’t expect to be the patient in the clinic room this morning getting her ankle evaluated. Just a short time ago, she was administering medications from a cart on one of the housing pods at a county jail as she did most weekday mornings for the last 14 months. This pod was for protective housing where those with mental illness or who had a vulnerability such as a severe learning disability were managed. She stationed her medication cart next to the officer desk, as usual, and started through the line in her standard process, checking arm bands and bantering with the men while she delivered the medications and watched them swallow their pills. A new detainee became angry when he found out Jennifer did not have the clonipin he thought the doctor had ordered for him. He shoved the cart forward, toppling Jennifer and catching her left ankle under the wheels.
Medication administration is a primary nursing function in corrections. Even with a keep-on-person system in place, there are a number of medications that still need administered in a watch-take (direct observation) process. Often called pill lines, direct administration of medications can take place in two primary ways. Inmates may come to a central area like the yard or the medical unit for their medication doses at designated times. This is a more common practice in prisons. Decentralized pill lines, more common in jails, involve the nurse coming to the inmate living areas to administer medication. In lower security settings this can mean standing behind a medication cart in the housing unit open area with inmates lining up for their medication. In higher security areas, this may mean rolling a cart from cell to cell to administer medication. Unfortunately, many high security settings have narrow walkways that necessitate pre-packaging medications for administeration through the cell bars.
Personal safety during the medication administration process is an important concern in corrections. Emotional control can be a scarce commodity behind bars. Patients can become volatile when medication request are declined, such as in Jennifer’s situation above. Especially in a jail setting, patients can be coming off various self-medication schemes, such as a variety of street drugs and alcohol, making them edgy and irritable. They can be overloaded with entry information for living in this confined setting and may not have registered what was told them about medication changes or start-up delays. Jennifer was comfortable, maybe even complacent, with the medication delivery process and was not alert to her personal safety that morning.
Cart placement is a very important part of personal safety. Unfortunately, this is sometimes out of a nurse’s control based on the layout of the facility. However, make every effort to work out an agreeable process that maintains personal safety as much as possible. Here are some questions to ask:
- Can the patient forcefully shove the cart toward the nurse, causing injury?
- Are there brakes on the cart and are they locked prior to the start of the line?
- How far from the cart top are patients standing?
- Could a heavy object, like a pill crusher, be taken from the top of the cart and use as a weapon?
- Is an officer actively engaged in the medication administration process or focusing on other duties at that time?
Possibly the safest situation is for a barrier to exist between the nurse and the inmate such as the use of a pill window behind a locked door. It would also be safest for an officer to be located on the same side of the cart as the patient. In Jennifer’s situation, the officer was behind a desk that was next to the medication cart. He was watching monitors while she worked.
Personal safety can also be compromised by a nurse’s own medication practices. Jennifer has seasonal allergies and was taking an antihistamine that works well for allergy symptoms but make her brain a bit foggy for the first few hours after she takes it. Having forgotten to take it when she awoke this morning, she took the medication just before she started organizing for the morning pill pass. Thus, she was not as alert to safety issues as she might have been.
Nurses often focus on patient safety when administering medications as this standard task has great error potential. Personal safety, however, is also a key concern when administering medications in the criminal justice system. Do you have personal safety tips for medication administration? Share them in the comments section of this post.
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