Love a Challenge and Want to Make a Difference? Consider a Career in Correctional Medicine

June 3, 2019


While a relatively high pay check certainly is a draw, most medical students say that primary driver for choosing a career in medicine is the chance to make a positive difference in their future patients’ lives. One often overlooked and growing opportunity is in correctional medicine, providing care for incarcerated populations in US jails and prisons.

According to a 2017 study by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly half of all jail inmates suffer from some kind of mental illness with more than a quarter reporting a severe condition, such as bipolar disorder. The same year, the bureau reported that upward of two-thirds of sentenced jail inmates suffer from drug addiction or dependency – a figure based on data from 2007-09, which means it doesn’t take into account the recent catastrophic rise of opioid addiction. In addition cases, newly booked inmates are likely to suffer withdrawals which can require close monitoring and specialized treatment that jail wardens are not equipped to provide, particularly in jails located in rural or poor communities. Meanwhile in prisons, where inmates generally serve long sentences, populations suffer chronic diseases and aging-related conditions.

Trouble is, while the medical field faces a coming shortage of physicians across the board, the correctional health care specialty represents a particularly critical need – and a wide open opportunity for future physicians willing to serve this challenging population.

“What I like about correctional medicine is that it’s very difficult,” said John G. Mills, DO, MPH, who has served as medical director of the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth, Texas, since 2010, in a recent interview with The DO, an online publication of the American Osteopathic Association. “It’s a little like working in the emergency room. You have to bring your A game every day.” 

Though it’s challenging, it can also be effective and highly rewarding.

“Outside the jail, I’ve written prescriptions that patients never filled because they didn’t have the money,” Dr. Mills said. “In the jail, you know patients are going to get the medicine you prescribe and the diagnostic tests you order.” 

At least one school recognizes the need and is responding. Earlier this month, George Washington University announced a first-of-its kind online program for a Master of Science in Health Sciences (MSHS) in Correctional Health Administration, designed to prepare graduates to lead health care initiatives for the nation’s incarcerated populations.

"Serving patients in a correctional facility comes with a unique set of challenges," said Newton E. Kendig, MD, clinical professor of medicine and program director, in a press release. Noting that classes begin this fall. "Our program was carefully designed to create health care leaders who know how to meet the needs of diverse patients while balancing a budget and managing a team of correctional health care professionals."

If you’re considering a medical career, no matter your specialty, enrolling at WOLFPACC can help assure you a competitive edge, particularly when it comes to acing your COMLEX and USMLE exams. Call 904-209-3140 to find out how.