What would you do in this situation? Comparing clinical judgement.

Last week’s post was an opportunity to exercise your skill in making clinical judgments about patients who present with possible mental health issues. This week the best clinical option in each case is described along with the rationale. Compare each answer to the conclusion you drew about what to do next with the patient. If your answer is different it is important to reflect on the reasons; it may be that you perceived the symptoms differently or that you had a past experience that influenced your decision. If your answer is the same did you have the same rationale or another?

Case # 1. Willie is a 46 year old man with a history of seizures, suicide attempts and has a mental health diagnosis of “psychotic disorder, not otherwise specified”. He is followed regularly in chronic care clinics for both the seizure disorder and mental health. Dilantin and Haldol are prescribed for him to take twice daily and he is for the most part adherent in taking the medication. This evening while administering medication cell side he will not come to the door to take his medication. He is responsive to you but his conversation is making no sense. His cell is messy and there are cartons of partially eaten food strewn about on the cell floor. What action do you take?

  1. Document your observations in the medical record.
  2. Take his vital signs.
  3. Call the medical provider.
  4. Make a referral to mental health.
  5. All of the above.

Rationale: There are both medical and psychiatric concerns here. Always consider medical reasons for disordered behavior first. This is because if diagnosed and treated early the consequences of delayed treatment are avoided (permanent disability, death, adverse events and stigma). Both medical and mental health staff need to be notified so that care of the patient is coordinated. Taking vital signs and initiating periodic monitoring as well as the description of symptoms by way of observation contribute important information to the patient’s evaluation by medical and mental health staff.

Case #2. Norma is a 55 year old woman with a history of bipolar disorder. She was taken off the mental health caseload several months ago because she was doing well. Recently she displayed threatening behavior to several other inmates and as a result has been put into administrative segregation. It is early in the morning and the officers complain to you that she has been awake all night, singing and prancing about the cell. You should do all of the following except:

  1. Try to speak with her and make your own observations of her condition.
  2. Document your assessment in the medical record.
  3. Join in her song to initiate a therapeutic alliance.
  4. Make an urgent referral to Mental Health.
  5. Call the Mental Health Clinical Supervisor to report that you have made the referral.

Rationale: While Norma is not imminently a danger to self or others right now, it is unusual behavior that needs to be addressed promptly. By trying to speak with her you can assess her ability to respond to others and the extent to which she is able to communicate. Obviously you will document your assessment in the record because otherwise “it never took place”, right? Communicating directly with the mental health supervisor about the urgent referral is recommended so that he or she has an opportunity to clarify information about your observations of the patient and has the information to follow up and ensure the patient is seen timely. Joining the patient in her song may not be interpreted by the patient as therapeutic (it could be viewed as demeaning, threatening or confusing) and it serves no therapeutic purpose.

Case # 3. Geraldo is a 35 year old man with diabetes. He is followed regularly in the chronic care clinic and his diabetes has been in fair control the last six months. At today’s insulin line you notice that he appears to be upset and say something to him about it. He says that he just got an additional 20 months on another sentence. He thanks you for your concern. What should you do next?

  1. Immediately contact the on call mental health provider.
  2. Make a supportive comment and provide information about how to access mental health services.
  3. Place him on suicide watch.
  4. Give him the insulin he needs and move on to the next patient in line.
  5. Suggest that he order some Honey Buns, a favorite comfort food, from the commissary.

Rationale: The other choices range from too much to too little, to counter-therapeutic, don’t they? He isn’t expressing actively suicidal intention so there is no basis for contacting the on call mental health provider or placing him on suicide watch. But he did just get “bad news” and looks upset about it. Don’t assume that every inmate is going to know how to access mental health services; they may not remember because it wasn’t something that was important at the time of explanation. Providing information about access also indicates that it is normal to be upset about bad news and that people can benefit from “help” in coping with these challenges. Suggesting that he eat “comfort food” undermines the management of his diabetes and is counter-therapeutic.

Case # 4. Tammy is a 23 year old woman received at the jail for the first time 72 hours ago on a charge of reckless driving. The officers have contacted you this evening because “she is going crazy” and has not rested or eaten over the last 24 hours. You check her medical record and note that on intake she gave no history of mental health treatment and denied use of drugs or alcohol. On interview she doesn’t make any sense, does not respond to requests and seemed to get increasingly agitated. She also was picking at things in the air and rolling her fingers. What would you do next?

  1. Have a drug urinalysis done.
  2. Place her on medical observation.
  3. Complete a CIWA-Ar evaluation.
  4. Contact the provider for orders.
  5. Follow up with the officer later in the shift.

Rationale: Even though Tammy denied use of drugs at intake screening and gave no history of mental health treatment these certainly are possibilities now. An earlier post commented that we should expect patients to under-report at intake use of alcohol and drugs and include possibility of withdrawal in our differential diagnosis. While you most certainly will contact the provider and place her on observation, the next step is to do a more focused assessment for withdrawal. The CIWA-Ar is a standardized assessment tool that many correctional health care programs use to manage patients in withdrawal. The data collected from an assessment with this tool will provide the clinician with important information to use in determining treatment and follow up of this patient.

Case # 5. Jamie is a 17 year old brought to jail on a charge of burglary. He has a history of several other detentions as a juvenile. Currently he is in segregation for failure to follow orders. He has multiple complaints of chest pain and indigestion because of the food served with the religious diet. He is brought to the clinic because he has cut himself. He has four superficial lacerations on his left forearm. You treat each of the wounds and after a brief examination release him to return to his cell. This is his fourth cutting episode. What would you consider the best next step to be?

  1. Schedule him for a nursing visit the next day?
  2. Make a referral to the mental health staff.
  3. Ask the dietician to see him about the religious diet.
  4. Suggest an interdisciplinary meeting to discuss his care.
  5. Report the cutting episode to the next shift.

Rationale: Repeated cutting, even when not severe, is considered self-harm. Self-harm is a form of psychological distress, even in the absence of a diagnosed mental illness. Since this is his fourth episode, we can expect to see more episodes of cutting or other forms of self-harm with accidental or intentional suicide a real possibility. Since his maladaptive behavior effects everyone (security, medical, food service, religious services and mental health) an interdisciplinary plan of care is going to be the most effective. Nursing staff are in the key position to make this recommendation because we see the constellation of problems he presents (segregation, physical complaints about the diet, self-harm etc.).

Learning from case examples

Exercising good clinical judgement is one of the most essential features of correctional nursing. The right to a clinical judgment is one of the three constitutional rights that inmates have while incarcerated and nurses are most often the first health care professional to make a clinical judgement about an inmate in the correctional setting. Comparing decisions about cases is one way to increase information and build skill in making clinical judgments.

So how do your clinical judgments compare to these recommendations? In what way do they differ and why? For example if mental health services are limited only to those with the most severe symptoms you may not provide information to Geraldo in Case # 3 about accessing mental health for help coping with “bad news”. But what if he has trouble coping? Suicide is a risk resulting from “bad news” so what is an alternative clinical judgement? Schedule him for a nurse follow up visit? Are there other programs at your facility to help…such as the chaplain or a volunteer group? Examining your answers in this way may lead to identification of additional resources that you may want to use or develop further.

You may want to discuss each of these cases with other nurses at your facility to find out what others would do. If you do this as a group you may find that there are more resources than any one individual knew were available. These cases also would be great for an interdisciplinary discussion. If each member discusses what is their most important next step and why, other disciplines will know more about each program and its operation so that work with the inmate is coordinated rather than at cross purposes. These discussions will also identify opportunities to improve the management of inmates or eliminate gaps or barriers in service that are a liability risk.

We are interested in hearing your comments about what you think is the best clinical judgement in these cases. To do so please respond in the comments section of this post. To learn more about correctional nurses’ assessment of mental illness, response to suicide, self -harm and withdrawal, see our book, Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order your copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!

Photo credit: © chrisharvey – Fotolia.com

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