North Carolina prisons add dentistry to telehealth program

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The North Carolina Department of Public Safety this month is expanding a telehealth initiative to begin offering dentistry services to inmates from afar.

Inmates at state prisons will soon be able to visit virtually with dentists and learn if their issues warrant a visit to a dental office or if they can be resolved without leaving their facilities. With the purchase of specialized scopes and lenses, officials said they’re hopeful that the addition of dentistry to the decade-old telehealth program will reduce the number of inmates who travel unnecessarily into nearby communities for care.

Terri Catlett, the department’s director of health care administration, told StateScoop that virtual medicine is a powerful triage tool that can save the state money while improving service for inmates. She said some oral-health conditions can sometimes be cured with a prescription for antibiotics, rather than a full visit to a dental clinic.

North Carolina launched its telemedicine program for inmates in 2012 following an influx of prisoners who needed psychiatric care, Catlett said. She said the program started off “very primitive,” with just basic video cameras and speakers. 

The program has since grown, first adding other medical specialties, and then branching into general care. A six-month study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 94% of inmates reported a positive experience with the telehealth program. Officials also said the program has led to $3.8 million in cost avoidance for the state.

Catlett said that traveling outside a prison to receive medical care is a hassle for prisoners that often involves waking up early, being strip searched, missing work and riding on a bus for hours in each direction. The department’s chief information officer, Glenn Mack, told StateScoop that transporting inmates to outside medical providers draws corrections offers away from prisons, where they may be needed.

Department officials plan to travel around the state this month, training dentists’ offices on protocols and how to use the equipment needed to treat inmates virtually. Far from “primitive,” the program is now the envy of public safety departments in other states, who, Mack said, sometimes ask him “how did you do this?”

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corrections, dentistry, North Carolina, telehealth
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