Last week I reviewed a letter responding to a complaint from an inmate’s wife that her husband was not receiving proper care for a back injury received when he was apprehended. The response starts like this “During intake screening on February 10, 2016 the inmate denied recent injury or hospitalizations. He also denied any past history of injury. Upon examination there were no signs or symptoms of injury to his back.”
How many times had you had something similar happen- an inmate seems to be healthy and denies any medical or mental health issues at intake, then a few hours, days or weeks later complains about a particular health issue alleging that it either happened just before incarceration or has been long standing? I have seen this happen lots of times. The letter above reminded me once again how inaccurate and unreliable health information obtained at intake can be. Some nurses I work with actually took a retrospective look at the accuracy of health information collected at intake compared to information obtained by asking the same questions a week later. What were the findings? Well, it was surprising how much more information the inmate was able to provide.
What do you think are some of the reasons that information taken during intake screening differs from that obtained later? These are some of the reasons that nurses give when asked this question:
- Inmates are unreliable or untruthful. If you think about your experience with patients in emergency nursing, urgent care and to some extent ambulatory care settings you would probably agree that they didn’t always tell the whole truth either. Inmates really aren’t different in this regard. It is unrealistic to expect patients to tell you the whole truth when you are asking screening questions.
- Inmates are affected by drugs or alcohol and not aware of other health problems they may have, like infected teeth or other sources of pain. Jail nurses cite this as a reason more often. This is because the detainee arrives at the facility directly from the community. It’s always wise for the nurse to be mindful that they have not witnessed the inmate or their environment in the minutes, hours or days prior to intake screening and the inmate may not be able tell us that the headache they have, for example, is a subdural hematoma from a fight that happened on the transport bus an hour ago.
- Inmates are manipulative and distort the truth for secondary gain. Yes, they do. If I imagine myself in the same situation, I would too. If what I tell the nurse about my health gets me a preferable setting, with more access to visitation or a lower custody housing assignment, or protection from other inmates then I would answer intake screening questions in a way that is likely to result in my desired outcome. It doesn’t matter if the nurse has that kind of decision making power or not; if the inmate believes the nurse can influence these things they will answer accordingly.
Realizing that an inmate may not have answered the health screening questions fully will protect you from coming to clinical judgements and decisions that are based upon incomplete or inaccurate information. Other reasons for inaccurate intake screening information include:
- An environment that is not conducive to sharing personal health information. This could be because other inmates can overhear the interview or that correctional officers are nearby. At one jail I visited, intake screening took place with a nurse sitting at a computer behind an elevated counter. The inmate was standing below, speaking to the nurse through a Plexiglas screen. Other inmates were standing about five feet away and officers were everywhere. This was equivalent to giving your health history by megaphone at a football game. No thanks!
- Failure to communicate effectively. This could be because of cultural or language differences or disability. Health information is a complicated subject. If English is not the inmate’s primary language, the accuracy of screening information collected using English is not going to be as accurate as that collected in the inmate’s native language. The same is true of those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Considering cultural practices regarding health care will also yield richer information than when these are disregarded. Lastly, an uninterested and hardened nurse is not going to elicit personal health information very well from a patient in any setting, not just inmates in the correctional setting.
- Health care is really not a priority at intake. This is true for the inmate as well as the facility. When an inmate arrives at a jail it is usually because they have just been arrested. Again, when I imagine myself in those shoes, I would be more concerned about when or if I could make bail, how to make contact with my family or someone who can help me and the immediate consequences of my arrest. My health care is not very important until I begin to feel bad. Being asked a bunch of questions about my health status and history is really an annoyance, especially if I believe I won’t be in jail very long. Prisons or detention facilities are different, but still at intake, health care is not likely to be as important as other things, such as housing, access to property, contact with family, and safety for most detainees. Later when these other concerns have been addressed, aspects of health care become more important.
So what does a correctional nurse do about this?
- Remember that intake screening is for the purpose of safety. It is to make the best determination possible about care or treatment that an inmate will need for the next few days. Establishing medical support for detoxification, arranging for an inmate to continue important medications and addressing trauma are the primary things to get done. It is not the best time to expect a complete history and physical.
- Think of every subsequent health care encounter as another opportunity to add meaningful information to the inmate’s health record. What was documented at intake may no longer be as accurate. Inmates are usually not very sophisticated about health care and may not know or remember what is important to tell their health care provider about. You can model this in your interaction with inmates and can also coach them in preparation for their primary care appointment. View each encounter as adding a chapter to a patient’s book rather than a battle over what the inmate gets or not.
- Take an objective look at what intake screening is like from the inmate’s perspective. Go out to booking or the intake area and observe the process. What is the experience like? Identify the things that may be barriers to giving information during health screening and see if anything can be changed to improve the process. Not all of the barriers can be eliminated but just knowing what they are gives a good picture of the things that make intake screening vulnerable to inaccuracy. This information can be used to identify inmates or the kinds of situations which might benefit from scheduled follow up.
Are there reasons that you think make intake health screening inaccurate or unreliable that are not mentioned in this post? What advice would you give others to improve the accuracy or reliability of intake health screening?
For more about the art and science of intake health screening refer to Chapter 14 about Health Screening in the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. You can order a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today.
Photo credit: © Exume Images – Fotolia.com