0728-News-Prison health_WP

State prisons appear to be doing a good job in providing inmates with cardiac health care, with most also screening for cardiovascular risk factors, found a federal survey of state prison officials.

The report, released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows cardiac care is provided at a mix of on-site and off-site locations by the 44 states that responded to the survey question. A quarter of those states offer telemedicine for heart-related care.

All 44 states screen at least some inmates for high blood pressure, and more than two-thirds check inmates’ cholesterol during the prison admissions process. The report also showed that during the entry process, 29 states perform electrocardiograms on inmates with heart disease, as well as those over a certain age or who have some other medical reason for the test.

Although there is a lot of information about healthcare services at the state level, few studies have looked at the broader, national picture, said Karishma Chari, the report’s lead author.

“Prisoners in the United States … are entitled to health care and we don’t have an idea of what that landscape looks like,” said Chari, a statistics analyst who helped design the survey questions. “So this was a very first step to understand the kinds of healthcare services that population is receiving, who’s providing the care and where is it provided.”

There are more than 1.5 million Americans housed in state and federal prisons, according to the report. Over the past three decades, the number of inmates ages 55 and older has ballooned, from nearly 9,000 in the early 1980’s to 144,500 in 2013.

The findings were collected from the 2011 National Survey of Prison Health Care. That year, nearly 580,000 men and women were admitted into state prisons in the 45 states participating in the survey, although not all states responded to every question. Alaska, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia did not participate because representatives from those states said prison officials were unavailable or did not have time to answer the questions, the report said.

Beyond heart screening, the survey found all 45 states screen inmates for mental health conditions, suicide risk and tuberculosis. Most also screen for hepatitis.

Josiah “Jody” Rich, M.D., director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island, values the researchers’ efforts but said the survey lacks a hard look at what services are provided and the quality of care inmates receive.

“I think it’s a good thing to study,” said Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University. “But I think we should challenge them to get into more depth.”

Chari admits the information collected by the CDC has been broad, but she hopes researchers elsewhere use it to learn more about prison health care.