Telemedicine Is Revolutionizing Prison Health Care

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Improvements in access enabled by telemedicine can literally be a matter of life and death.

Over the past few years, telemedicine — a term broadly used to describe any method of remotely accessing medical care, including over the phone, through email, or via video chat — has gone from a sci-fi proposition to an increasingly ordinary part of health care.

In many parts of the country, it’s now possible to get birth control, HIV preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP), dermatological care, erectile dysfunction medications, therapy, and even UTI treatments without ever entering a doctor’s office. And telemedicine experts are hopeful that even more services will become widely available over the coming years, making accessing a medical professional as easy as opening an app.

But there’s a sector where telemedicine has been a part of the landscape for several decades: prisons. While prisons aren’t known for being on the cutting edge of tech, the harsh realities of prison health care — where many inmates have complicated medical needs and getting access to an offsite doctor can be a lengthy and even traumatic process — have inspired many places to get creative about how their prisoners access much-needed care.

In the 1990s, some prison systems began offering inmates the option to connect with offsite medical specialists over the phone; in recent years, phone appointments have been upgraded to video chats with physicians. A report on prison health care from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 30 states in 2011 offered some form of telemedicine care to prisoners, with psychiatric services being the most common at the time.

As the technology behind telemedicine improves, advocates are hopeful that expanding telemedicine programs for inmates will lead to shorter wait times, increased patient privacy, and improved outcomes for seriously ill prisoners.

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