Friday, August 13, 2010

What Good Are You?

"What good are you?"

It sounds harsh, but sometimes that's what I hear from my patients. When a prisoner first comes into my office, he may announce a list of things he wants me to do for him: get in touch with the public defender or case manager, look up a court date, make a phone call, give him the lower bunk, order extra portions of food, etc. When I explain who I am and add that I am seeing him only for psychiatric treatment, I hear "the phrase": "Then what good are you?" Apparently, I'm not good as a concierge service.

Defining the physician-patient relationship is the first step in correctional treatment. Life is simpler when it's clear what you will or will not do for a prison patient. Inexperienced correctional physicians feel uncomfortable doing this because they want to be "nice" to the patient or because they're afraid that denying a request might harm the physician-patient relationship.

The problem with complying with all these requests is that the patient will continue to take it for granted that the doctor will always do these things, which draws the focus of the appointment away from treatment. Other prisoners will learn that the physician will do errands or give privileges, and the clinician will find his clinic swamped with requests for appointments that involve issues other than mental health care.

The clinician may be tempted to pretend to help, going through the motions of a request that he knows will not be granted. Worse yet, he might promise to help but then be too swamped or overwhelmed to actually carry through on that promise. Either way, the promise is not kept and prison patient learns that the clinician can't be trusted.

All of this can be prevented by clearly establishing the boundaries of the treatment relationship and the limits of the appointment. This does not harm the physician-patient relationship. In fact, prison patients appreciate a straight answer, even if that answer is 'no'. I find it helpful to give a straightforward response: "If I can help you with something I will. If I can't help you, I'll tell you upfront I can't. This is what I CAN help you with…" and so actual treatment begins.