New York: Medical Data at City Jails Enter the Era of Computers

On Thursday, city health officials introduced a new computerized medical screening process for inmates arriving at New York City jails. With the move to digitized intake forms, inmates are assigned an identification number that remains the same from incarceration to incarceration, said Louise Cohen, the deputy commissioner with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in charge of supervising jail health care. This allows workers to quickly access the medical histories of repeat offenders. The $200,000 system also lets workers generate requests for specialized care faster and more accurately, she said.

Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden said the health department is looking to expand inmate testing for HIV and STDs. Ten percent to 20 percent of the approximately 14,000 city inmates at any given time are HIV-positive, according to health officials.

In addition to using the rapid-result HIV test, Cohen said her department has launched a pilot program that assigns patient care coordinators to all HIV-positive inmates in one jail on Rikers Island. If successful, the program will expand to other jails. This network of caseworkers will track all HIV-positive inmates and link them to community care after their release.

Frieden said Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest budget allocates $3.7 million to improve HIV and STD testing. By summer, Frieden said his agency will designate a vendor to create an electronic medical records system for the jails. The city has allocated $12 million for this effort, which will computerize the entire medical records system to allow files to be shared among doctors easily. Because the paper records now in use often do not travel with the inmates, doctors are sometimes forced to rely on inmates' own recollections of their medications and treatment histories. The transition to the new system will take two to three years to complete, Cohen said.