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Physician-Prisoner Relationship

The physician-prisoner relationship is different from the traditional physician-patient relationship. The physician-prisoner relationship is not a fiduciary relationship. Legally, it most closely resembles the relationship between a public health physician and a patient. In both cases, the physician's first duty is to the health and safety of the community rather than to the patient. Prison officials have broad discretion to preserve order in the prison. Prisoners lose most of their rights to privacy along with their liberty. Prison officials have a right to any information a physician may obtain that would affect the health and safety of the prison community. Reportable diseases and conditions should also be reported to the health department with jurisdiction over the community where the facility is located.

While prisoners have little expectation of privacy, they do have an expectation that their physician will exercise independent medical judgment regarding the diagnosis and treatment of their medical conditions. The correctional staff should not be in the position of influencing medical care decisions. Under no circumstances should access to proper medical care be used as a disciplinary tool. The prison officials do have the right to establish policies that ensure that prisoners do not use untreated illness to avoid prison discipline and that prisoners' medical conditions do not interfere with prison order.


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