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Warren J. Ferguson, MD, Calls on Family Medicine Educators to Help End the Era of Mass Incarceration

March 15, 2016—Warren J. Ferguson, MD, will take the stage at the STFM Annual Spring Conference on Wednesday, May 4, and will challenge family physicians and educators to serve and advocate for populations affected by mass incarceration. 

“Academic family medicine has always been active in embracing care for vulnerable populations,” says Dr Ferguson, professor and vice chair of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts (UMass). “Approximately 100 million Americans have criminal records… so it is likely that every family physician has patients who are impacted by the criminal justice system, either directly or as a result of immediate family members who are incarcerated. “

In Dr Ferguson’s talk, “A Call to Action: The Role of Academic Family Medicine in the Era of Mass Incarceration,” he will focus on the four main ways that family medicine can help end mass incarceration and its effect on vulnerable populations.

The first is patient care. “We need to do a better job asking about risks for criminal justice involvement, including family histories of incarceration, symptoms of mental illness (especially in men), histories of trauma, and substance use. Then, we need to engage people in care. If your patient does get in trouble, you need to be their advocate,” Dr Ferguson says.

Second is the focus of academic research. “Family medicine is very well situated to study bias against individuals seeking medical care post-incarceration and for interventional studies with at-risk individuals to avoid incarceration in the first place,” says Dr Ferguson. He lists several potential research topics: evidence-based practices on the front end via alternative sentencing; adaptations of evidence-based practices proven in community settings (e.g. medication-assisted treatment for opioid dependence); and interventions post-incarceration that mitigate risk for re-incarceration (e.g. Transition Clinics Network). 

The third way involves supporting the next generation of family physicians in their passion to end mass incarceration. “In my experience, today’s students are very concerned with mass incarceration. We need to support grass-root student efforts and offer educational opportunities for health professional trainees to work behind bars, and also with former detainees.“ Dr Ferguson recommends that academic health centers incorporate criminal justice health into their health disparities and health equity strategies. He adds that family medicine departments should include this population in their core curricula on population health and health disparities. 

The final way is through advocacy. “We need to extend current efforts to engage legal advocates in our advocacy efforts to help individuals who are facing or who are returning from periods of incarceration. Certainly, academic criminal justice scholars need to take the lead in efforts to reform our justice system, but there also needs to be collaboration with health care leaders and providers, given that the root cause for incarceration often involves health conditions.“ says Dr Ferguson. He also believes that family medicine should be advocating for housing and gainful employment.

Dr Ferguson serves as the director of academic programs for the UMass medical school’s Health and Criminal Justice Program and is the medical director of the MassAHEC Network. He has taught medical students and residents for 21 years, focusing on curriculum development regarding service to underserved populations. In 2002, Dr Ferguson took on a challenge to assist UMass in developing a comprehensive medical care program for detainees in the state’s prisons. He founded the Academic and Health Policy Conference on Correctional Health, now in its 9th year, as well as the Academic Consortium on Criminal Justice Health. With funding from NIH and AHRQ, Dr Ferguson now leads two projects in implementation science in four correctional systems to adopt evidence-based health practices in state prisons and jails.

The Health and Criminal Justice Program, a unit within UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division, focuses on research and scholarship, education, and service and consulting. It also runs the Academic Consortium on Criminal Justice Health, which hosts an international, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed conference annually on criminal justice health and health policy. The program manages contracts to provide health services for the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Federal Medical Centers in Devens, Massachusetts, and Butner, North Carolina, as well as its Federal Correctional Institutions in Ray Brook, New York, and Berlin, New Hampshire.

Dr Ferguson will be the final general session speaker at the STFM Annual Spring Conference in Minneapolis. To learn more about the conference, visit 

Copyright 2018 by Society of Teachers of Family Medicine