The art of meeting new patients in a jail

I only have a few minutes to convince my patient that I am a legitimate medical doctor and that I care about him


This column was originally posted on Jeff Keller's blog, Jail Medicine.

I will be meeting a new jail patient with multiple medical problems today in my clinic. I know this much before I even meet him: He will almost certainly be scared, especially if this is the first time he has ever been to jail. He will likely be suspicious of me. He may even be downright hostile. I know this because this is the norm for correctional medicine. I can’t be an effective doctor unless I can turn this attitude around.

Consider the situation from my patient’s perspective. Before seeing me, he was arrested, handcuffed and driven to jail in a police car. Once at the jail, he was thoroughly searched (spread-eagle against the wall), fingerprinted and had his “mug shot” taken. His clothes were taken away and he was given old jail clothes (including used underwear). He was placed in a concrete cell. Now he is summoned by a correctional deputy and told (not asked) to go to the medical clinic.

New jail patients with multiple medical problems are often scared and suspicious during their first encounter with medical personnel. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)
New jail patients with multiple medical problems are often scared and suspicious during their first encounter with medical personnel. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)


He did not choose me to be his doctor. Though he doesn’t know anything about me, he has no choice but to see me for his medical care. Not only did he did not choose me; he cannot fire me or see anyone else. He may fear that I am not a competent doctor; otherwise, why would I be practicing in a jail?

This is the attitude that I have to overcome. How to do this is an essential skill for correctional practitioners. And, of course, the single most important encounter is the first one. A negative first impression is hard to overcome – and I am already starting at a disadvantage. What I have to do in only a few minutes is to convince my patient that I am a legitimate medical doctor and that I care about him. I have learned in many years of doing this that these things are essential:

I must put aside my judgments, emotions and fears  

I will be taking care of people accused of horrific crimes, such as pedophilia, murder and rape. But I am now their doctor and must do my best to take care of their medical needs. If I feel disgusted, I must not show it, nor allow it to interfere with my judgment. Similarly, I will find other inmates frightening and still others, I will genuinely like. I cannot allow these emotions to show in my behavior. A basic principle of correctional medicine is fairness. I must treat all patients the same, whether I like them, fear them or am repelled by them.

I must look like a doctor! 

If I want this patient to trust my competence and my judgment, I need to look the part. There is a temptation to think, “Hey, it’s a jail! I don’t need to dress up!” But that is a mistake. If I dress casually in jeans, a t-shirt and sandals, it will confirm my patient’s unconscious suspicion that I am not a “real” doctor.  When I worked in the ER, I usually wore scrubs, but since jail inmates commonly wear scrub-like attire, scrubs are out (in my opinion). I personally usually wear a dress shirt, slacks and a suit coat. Appearance for a health care provider is more important in a jail, not less.

I must be genuine and gentle

It may be that my patient has not heard a kind word since being arrested. Being in jail can be humiliating.  New patients will assume that I am going also going to be stern. I should treat the introduction as if I were meeting this person in church, not a jail. If I look at the patient in the eye, smile (genuinely), and say, “Hi Mr. Smith!  I’m Dr. Keller. It is nice to meet you” or “It’s good to see you again,” this will go a long way to establishing a working doctor-patient relationship instead of an inmate-jail employee relationship.

I should get close, if possible. 

If I start behind my desk (where I was reviewing the patient’s chart before they arrived), I need to come out from behind the desk so there is no barrier between me and the patient. Yes, security is important, but I should not act as if I am afraid of my patients. Besides, since there is always a security officer nearby, the actual risk of violence is less than that of the average emergency department.

I need to explain my role  

I usually say that my job is to continue their medical care while they are in jail. A common fear of new jail patients is that I am going to take over and ignore what their previous doctor has done. I tell my new patient that I am going to work with their outside doctors. Sometimes, this only entails reviewing old medical records. However, a phone call to their outside practitioner will go a long way in establishing trust with my new patient. I may indeed eventually take over if the patient stays in jail for a long enough time but hopefully, I will have established a good and trusting doctor-patient relationship by then. 

I need to explain how medical care in jails works. 

There are not a lot of advantages to being in jail generally, but one exception – a true advantage in most jails – is how accessible medical care is. Patients with chronic medical problems are generally seen by medical personnel more frequently in jail than they would be seen on the outside.  For example, if they take medications, they will come face to face with a nurse every day. It is easy to frequently check blood pressure, blood sugars, weight and schedule “How-are-you-doing?” sort of visits. I tell my new patients, “I will be talking to you a lot!” 

I need to be patient

Even with a good start, healthy relationships are not (of course) made in a single visit. It typically takes several weeks, many visits and patience to get patients to consider me to be “my doctor.” But it does happen!

As always, what I have written here is my opinion, based on my training, research and experience. I could be wrong. Please comment below. 

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