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Community Clinic, jail partner to provide telepsychiatry for inmates

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Telemedicine has arrived at the Jefferson County jail.

That wish of Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer, jail supervisor at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building, came true a few months ago via a partnership with the Children’s Home of Jefferson County. The Children’s Home, which oversees the Community Clinic of Jefferson County, helped establish a telepsychiatry program for inmates so they can seek mental health help electronically, rather than having to go out in the community in handcuffs and shackles.

Lt. Spencer said he hopes this is the start of what could be an expansive electronic medical care system at the jail.

“We’re just in the infancy stages of it,” he said. “I think we’re learning every time we use it.”

The jail now has three terminals for video teleconferencing, with one each for medical, mental health and legal matters.

Community Clinic Operations Director Jennifer L. Earl said the telepsychiatry program, a first for the clinic, is “a step in the right direction of where health care is growing.”

“It’s a good place to get our feet wet in this technology,” she said.

Telemedicine is what Lt. Spencer said he has dreamed of for the jail, but expanding the program boils down to it being affordable.

“We’re coming up on budget time, and I’m trying to get county legislators on board,” he said. “We’re the forgotten piece. We have 150 inmates in-house at any one time. We’re not connected to anyone on the outside. We’re also working with the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization to implement electronic medical records and the ability to have that shared as well as telemedicine.”

Being able to tap into appointments, consultations and referrals and look up charts electronically will save time and money, Lt. Spencer said. For example, before telepsychiatry was offered at the jail, inmates would have to be driven nearly 4 miles, round trip, to and from the clinic, which is in the Marcy Building on Polk Street. Depending on the time of day of the appointment, officers may have been paid overtime, Lt. Spencer said.

Keeping medical appointments in-house by use of telemedicine also would cut down on risks associated with taking inmates outside of the secure jail, he said.

Lt. Spencer said people live in a wireless society, so it makes sense for the jail to follow the electronic medical records and telemedicine system that already exists in the community. He said paper charts are still used at the jail.

Meanwhile, Children’s Home Executive Director Karen Y. Richmond said she can see telemedicine in the agency’s future for other programs.

“We’re going to be able to partner with other providers,” she said.

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