- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s prisons agency is taking a high-tech approach to inmate health care, a change officials say will both save money and cut down on potential security risks.

The Department of Corrections and the Medical University of South Carolina are announcing a telemedicine partnership this week. Using tools including videoconferencing, doctors at the Charleston hospital can examine inmates remotely, doing routine exams and even diagnosing illnesses from hundreds of miles away.

The partnership with MUSC Health, according to Corrections director Bryan Stirling, saves money in the costs of transporting inmates to hospitals, an effort that typically requires at least two officers, plus a driver. But, officials say, it also reduces possible security risks to physicians that come every time inmates are taken out of prison.

“Every time the fence opens and an offender goes out, there’s chances for bad things to happen,” Stirling said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “This will allow us not only to better serve this population, but also it’s a public safety thing. Keeping them behind the fence just makes sense.”

Many prisons are in rural areas, so the nearest clinic or hospital could be hours away. Some of the state’s institutions have their own health care facilities, but most aren’t staffed in evening hours. Fewer correctional officers are on duty during those hours also, a combination that Stirling says makes it even riskier to transport an inmate at night.

MUSC Health is part of the South Carolina Telehealth Alliance, a collaboration of academic medical centers, community hospitals and providers that aims to improve access to quality health care. Dr. Jimmy McElligot, MUSC Telehealth’s medical director, says the tools available through telehealth, like home video, messaging systems and digital medical record sharing, allow doctors to help diagnose and treat thousands of South Carolinians who might not otherwise get to see a physician as easily.

McElligot says treating more people remotely benefits patients and care providers alike, as fewer patients in the emergency room mean shorter wait times and less over-worked providers. Moreover, doctors and nurses can spend more quality time with patients on a regular, check-in basis, rather than in a single, often rushed, visit.

“When are you more likely to miss something? When you are rushed to get to everything in 15 minutes,” McElligot said. “Would you be better off making five-minute visits every week? We’re probably looking at briefer intervals of access to patients but overall more time and attention.”

Prison health care is expensive, particularly as inmate populations continue to age. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmate health care comprised $7.7 billion out of the overall $38.6 billion spent on corrections in 2011. That year, South Carolina spent $2,933 per inmate on health care, less than half of the national average. To combat these costs, at least a dozen other states utilize telehealth in their prison systems, according to South Carolina’s Corrections Department.

Before the program can officially get started here, inmate medical records are being digitized, an effort Stirling says is being paid for with existing budget month. Otherwise, funding for the telemedicine project comes from the state legislature to the Telehealth Alliance, founded by MUSC Health and which now includes the Corrections Department.

Corrections’ initial agreement with MUSC Health currently covers inmates in four prisons across the state - Kirkland Reception and Evaluation, as well as Evans, Turbeville and Lee Correctional Institutions - and hopefully will expand.

“Our state has been wise to invest in this,” McElligot said.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/

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