Each year, over 40,000 people are incarcerated in Ontario’s jails and prisons – many with significant medical and psychiatric conditions like mental illness, hepatitis C infection, and addictions.

In Canada, access to health care during incarceration is a human right, and health care can support people who experience incarceration in improving their health and well-being, says  family physician Fiona Kouyoumdjian, adding that many of the social determinants of health directly overlap with the social determinants of incarceration.

Kouyoumdjian is a family physician at a provincial jail and an assistant professor with McMaster University’s Department of Family Medicine, and she leads a research program that aims to prevent incarceration, improve health care in prisons, and support health and community reintegration for people at the time of prison release.

Her research uses various methods to describe the health status and health care use of people who experience incarceration, including through the linkage of correctional and health administrative data. She collaborates with government and non-government stakeholders, as well as researchers in other disciplines to influence practice and policy to improve health outcomes in this population.

Kouyoumdjian’s research on the rates and causes of death in people who experience incarceration contributed to the decision to implement overdose prevention training in prisons and to distribute naloxone kits to people when they’re released from prison.

Claire Bodkin is a resident physician with the department of family medicine, who has been working with Kouyoumdjian since she was a McMaster medical student. She credits working with Kouyoumdjian as instrumental to shaping her career trajectory.

“One of the things I've learned from Fiona is how to embrace the role of a clinician investigator - how to ground research in the clinical work that I’m doing with people, and how to develop research questions or lines of study from the work that I’m doing as a clinician,” said Bodkin.

“My hope is that the research I work on leads to improved care for people who experience incarceration, and also imagining and building a world where we don’t have prisons and people are not incarcerated.”

The prison health research program is one of many initiatives within the newly launched David Braley Primary Care Research Collaborative in the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster. For more information visit pcrc.fammedmcmaster.ca.