Dr. Warren Ferguson: Partnerships with correctional systems can improve care, advance research

July 28, 2014

More academic health centers should partner with correctional facilities to improve clinical care and advance education and research, according to an Academic Medicine commentary co-authored by Warren Ferguson, MD, professor and vice chair of family medicine & community health and a correctional health expert at UMass Medical School.

Only six state correctional systems have ever chosen academic health centers to provide care to their inmates, the authors say in Behind Bars: The Compelling Case for Academic Health Centers Partnering With Correctional Facilities. Positive outcomes, such as health improvements and cost reductions, in states where medical schools and departments of correction have worked together illustrate why that number should be higher. The commentary was published online on July 22, 2014.

Dr. Ferguson co-authored the commentary with Robert L. Trestman, PhD, professor of medicine at UConn Health Care and Jeff Dickert, PhD, LCSW, chief operating officer of University Correctional Health Care at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. All three authors work at institutions that have developed and delivered full-scale care systems or health administration services for state and federal correctional facilities.

“Inmate populations are disproportionally afflicted with serious health conditions that include mental illness and infectious disease,” said Ferguson, who has cared for patients that have been incarcerated. “One of UMass Medical School’s missions is to help disadvantaged populations get access to quality care and improve their health; and that includes individuals who move through the criminal justice system.”

Delivering care in a correctional setting provides medical students, fellows and practicing clinicians with a unique experience not offered through traditional training, according to the commentary. Working with patients behind bars offers insight into the value of caring for disadvantaged populations and managing chronic disease. And it provides data that can be used by researchers to evaluate an understudied population.

“From epidemiology to comparative effectiveness studies; from enhancing prenatal to end-of-life care; from risk factor clarification to rehabilitation and effective community reintegration: the research needs are extensive for these populations,” UConn Health's Trestman said. “Academic researchers and clinicians are ideally suited to addressing these questions and challenges through funded research.”

Ferguson is director of academic programs for the Health and Justice Program within UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division. The program focuses on research and scholarship; education; and service and consulting. It also runs the Academic Consortium on Criminal Justice Health, which hosts an international, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed conference annually on criminal justice health and health policy.  The next conference is scheduled for March 19-20, 2015 in Boston. 

The Health and Criminal Justice Program manages contracts to provide health services for the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Federal Medical Centers in Devens, Mass. and Butner, N.C., as well as its Federal Correctional Institutions in Ray Brook, New York and Berlin, N.H.