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Telehealth in correctional facilities: Transforming inmate health with wearable technology

These devices allow for the collection of essential health data without the constraints of in-person visits, ensuring an efficient and timely response to inmate medical needs

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Wearable ECG patches have emerged as a promising solution for monitoring inmates’ vitals.

By Aaron Timm

Correctional facilities, while tasked with ensuring security, also grapple with the demanding responsibility of delivering healthcare to inmate populations in challenging circumstances. The traditional model of healthcare delivery in such facilities typically relies on periodic or reactive visits, which can be inefficient and costly, as well as pose a security risk. For inmates, particularly those with acute conditions, the need for a more proactive approach is clear.

With recent advances in healthcare technology, wearables offer an integral solution to correctional healthcare challenges, including those related to telemedicine in correctional facilities. With wearables, clinicians can remotely monitor inmates’ health in real-time, enabling continuous and proactive healthcare management. The devices allow for the collection of essential health data without the constraints of in-person visits, ensuring an efficient and timely response to medical needs.

Navigating healthcare delivery challenges in correctional facilities

Within correctional facilities, resource constraints such as limited staffing, medical personnel and allocated healthcare budgets pose considerable challenges. Logistical hurdles arise during in-person healthcare visits due to security protocols, transportation issues and a need for dedicated personnel to accompany inmates.

For rural facilities, expenses can mount quickly when inmates must travel long distances for specialists or overnight hospital stays. Using wearables to monitor an inmate costs facilities a fraction of the expenses incurred in medically transporting and guarding them.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office in California, the combined costs of transporting and guarding one inmate for medical purposes can exceed $2,000 per day. While a facility likely needs to account for additional overhead costs, the cost of a wearable solution alone can be as little as $10 per day.

These constraints not only result in delayed medical attention but also make it challenging for correctional facilities to deliver comprehensive and timely care. Inmates are vulnerable to various acute medical conditions, such as cardiac events or respiratory issues, which require immediate attention. A proactive healthcare approach can help prevent worsening health outcomes, reduce healthcare costs, and address health emergencies promptly.

For these reasons, wearable ECG patches have emerged as a promising solution for monitoring inmates’ vitals. The small, non-intrusive devices adhere seamlessly to the skin, continuously capturing and transmitting real-time ECG data. Healthcare providers can leverage the sensors to proactively identify cardiac abnormalities, enabling timely interventions and reducing the necessity for frequent in-person visits.

Transforming inmate healthcare with mobile cardiac monitoring

In Florida, a county jail housing approximately 3,000 inmates is actively piloting Vivalink’s mobile cardiac monitoring solution to address the health concerns of its incarcerated population. Unlike prisons, which typically house individuals serving longer sentences, county jails typically cater to those awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences, resulting in more frequent turnover and demand for a flexible care system.

The county jail is equipped with an on-site infirmary for general healthcare. However, the infirmary is not equipped to handle specialized medical cases, particularly cardiac cases. The jail frequently has inmates who express concerns about chest pains and heart problems.

The absence of specialized equipment hinders the facility’s ability to offer comprehensive care to inmates with cardiac conditions. Some complaints may be legitimate health problems, while others could be attempts to temporarily leave the facility. Distinguishing between genuine health issues and fabricated complaints presents another challenge for healthcare providers at correctional facilities.

If an inmate exhibits serious medical conditions requiring hospitalization, the facility must arrange secure and efficient transportation. Security concerns during transit, including ensuring the safety of both inmates and personnel and managing potential emergencies en route, add complexity to the logistical process.

The role of wearable ECG patches in inmate healthcare

An integral part of the monitoring solution is wearable ECG patches that enable on-site heart monitoring. The sensors provide real-time insights into inmates’ cardiac health, enabling healthcare providers to promptly identify irregularities or potential cardiac issues. Notably, the solution enhances healthcare providers’ ability to accurately discern whether an inmate is genuinely experiencing a cardiac issue.

When needed, off-site providers can assess the situation in real time and determine the most appropriate course of action, whether it involves immediate intervention or additional monitoring. As a result, the solution reduces the need for frequent inmate visits to hospitals. In turn, wearable ECG sensors minimize associated security risks, logistical complexities, and costs linked to transporting inmates.

The portability and ambulatory nature of the monitoring solution enable inmates to maintain their regular routines while wearing the compact patches. Although it’s unlikely that inmates will wear the patches in their cells, the sensors allow for extended monitoring periods compared to traditional methods. Providers can continuously monitor inmates wearing ECG patches for hours or even days, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of their cardiac health.

Exploring future applications in correctional healthcare

Beyond improving healthcare delivery, the implementation of mobile cardiac monitoring has the potential of qualifying correctional facilities for reimbursement through RPM programs, highlighting the broader benefits of innovative healthcare solutions. As a result, correctional facilities not only embrace technological progress but also obtain additional value through potential financial benefits. However, it is also important to recognize the diversity between correctional systems regarding the use of technologies, such as Wi-Fi and connected devices, which can be a limiting factor in adoption.

While the implementation of wearables in correctional facilities is a recent development, it’s not the first instance of remote technology being utilized to enhance healthcare in such facilities. In the late 1990s, an experiment confirmed the practicality of providing long-distance healthcare to inmates through telemedicine. The findings demonstrated that remote access improves inmate healthcare by granting access to more medical specialists while reducing transport and security costs.

As an increasing number of correctional facilities successfully integrate wearables to address healthcare challenges, there is potential to explore future applications and expand the use of the technology. Beyond cardiac monitoring, wearables can be adapted to address various health concerns among inmates, offering a versatile and comprehensive approach to correctional healthcare.

About the author

Aaron Timm is Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Vivalink, a leading provider of digital healthcare solutions. He drives commercial strategy and development for its rapidly-expanding customer base in clinical research and healthcare. Prior to joining Vivalink, Timm was CEO of WorldCare Clinical, a global imaging clinical research organization and Timm served as CEO of Synarc, a global imaging CRO. A graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard University, Timm’s career began in law, with experience as general counsel of both private and publicly-traded companies.

In an ideal future, every officer would be equipped with the tools to not just enforce the law but also protect life in its most vulnerable moments