Incarcerated Patients and Equitability: The Ethical Obligation to Treat Them Differently

Document Type

Article - Open Access

Publication Title

The Journal of Clinical Ethics

Publication Date

Winter 2017

Abstract/ Summary

Prisoners are legally categorized as a vulnerable group for the purposes of medical research, but their vulnerability is not limited to the research context. Prisoner-patients may experience lower standards of care, fewer options for treatment, violations of privacy, and the use of inappropriate surrogates as a result of their status. This case study highlights some of the ways in which a prisoner-patient’s vulnerable status impacted the care he received. The article argues the following: (1) Prisoner-patients are entitled to the same quality of care as all other patients, and healthcare providers should be vigilant to ensure that the stigma of incarceration does not influence care decisions. (2) Options for treatment should reflect what is most medically appropriate in the hospital or other healthcare setting, even when not all treatments would be available in the correctional setting. (3) The presence of guards at the bedside requires that additional measures be taken to protect the privacy and confidentiality of prisoner-patients. (4) When end-of-life decisions must be made for an incapacitated patient, prison physicians are not well placed to act as surrogate decision makers, which heightens the obligations of the healthcare professionals in the hospital to ensure an ethically supportable process and outcome. Therefore, healthcare professionals should provide extra protection for those prisoner-patients who do not have decision-making capacity, by utilizing a robust process for decision making such as those used for incapacitated patients without surrogates, rather than relying solely on prison physicians as surrogates.