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UW-Parkside students suggest ways to save millions in Wisconsin prison health care

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Chris McMahon, left, and Trevor Severson, right, show state Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, a presentation on how keeping inmates’ medical records electronically could save the state millions. McMahon and Severson created the presentation for a University of Wisconsin-Parkside class. The two met with Wirch in his Madison office on March 7.

SOMERS — Switching from paper medical records to electronic ones would save the state prison system millions, according to research completed for a University of Wisconsin-Parkside class project.

Parkside senior Trevor Severson and Chris McMahon, who graduated from Parkside in May, used state Department of Corrections data to show how replacing a paper inmate medical records system with an electronic system would reduce the costs of staff time, paper, medicines and lawsuits.

Severson and McMahon presented their findings in March, and since then they’ve gotten attention from state legislators and even DOC officials.

“There was a discussion with the director of our Bureau of Health Services,” said Dennis Schuh, executive assistant to the DOC secretary. “They were very impressed with the students’ thoughts and their presentation style.”

Schuh said DOC has been looking at electronic records for a “number of years” but hasn’t made a change because planning takes time in such a large agency.

“Any change of that magnitude requires a great deal of due diligence,” he said. “We’re in the process of evaluating, planning.”

Severson and McMahon suggest a plan where inmates schedule appointments on iPads and records get stored in a computer database for easier retrieval.

Electronic scheduling

Currently, inmates request medical appointments by putting carbon-copy forms in a lockbox. The box gets emptied once daily by medical staff, who then schedule appointments by writing the inmates’ names in a notebook wherever they find open time slots, explained McMahon, who works as a medical program assistant for the Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center, 21425 Spring St. in Dover.

The form and notebook system can pose problems, McMahon said, because sometimes an inmate doesn’t find out when his appointment is quickly and turns in another form.

“If there’s no electronic means of scheduling, there’s no way to know how many appointments an inmate has so there’s a lot of double, triple, quadruple bookings,” McMahon said.

Those extra appointments make time slots look full when, in actuality, they’re open and other inmates could have used them, shaving weeks or more off the wait time to see a doctor.

“With a new system, within hours, a request could be triaged by a nurse … and they would not be scheduled more than once,” McMahon said. “It could decrease lawsuits where inmates say staff knew about a condition and did nothing.”

Plus, $30,000 annually could be saved by not printing all those carbon-copy forms, said McMahon, 32, of Racine.

Electronic records

Additional paper costs could be saved by not handwriting inmate medical histories and prescription records, McMahon and Severson’s research shows.

Right now, nurses write the records and must make copies of doctors’ orders for use by security personnel. They also take time to copy and send medical records when an inmate transfers. And they write out prescription sheets when an inmate goes to the emergency room or court, and when medicine orders are placed, McMahon said.

An electronic system would save all that paper — and time — plus allow the tracking of medications for bulk ordering, McMahon said.

“Right now, DOC spends $2.4 million on medications for HIV patients. If an immunology specialist could have real-time access to medical records, DOC would get special pricing and cut the cost to $1.2 million a year,” McMahon said DOC records show.

He doesn’t know how much he and Severson’s changes would save the prison system overall, but he knows it’s a lot, even when the costs of creating an electronic system are factored in.

Legislators who’ve heard the duo’s presentation, including former state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, largely agree, Severson and McMahon said.

“The legislators were all for it,” McMahon said. “They had no idea how archaic the current system was. From both sides of the aisle, they said it’s bad business.”

Legislators’ interest waned during the recall elections, said Severson, 21, of Barron. But he’s making plans to contact officials after November elections so meetings and real change can happen.


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