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Opinions/Hypotheses |

Catching Patients: Tuberculosis and Detention in the 1990s*

Barron H. Lerner, MD, PhD
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*From the Center for the Study of Society & Medicine, Department of Medicine, Columbia University, New York, NY.



Chest. 1999;115(1):236-241. doi:10.1378/chest.115.1.236
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The resurgence of tuberculosis (TB) in the early 1990s, including multidrug-resistant strains, led health officials to recommend the use of involuntary detention for persistently nonadherent patients. Using a series of recently published articles on the subject, this paper offers some opinions on how detention programs have balanced protection of the public’s health with patients’ civil liberties. Detained persons are more likely than other TB patients to come from socially disadvantaged groups. Health departments have generally used coercion appropriately, detaining patients as a last resort and providing them with due process. Yet health officials still retain great authority to bypass “least restrictive alternatives” in certain cases and to detain noninfectious patients for months or years. Misbehavior within institutions may inappropriately be used as a marker of future nonadherence with medications. As rates of TB and attention to the disease again decline, forcible confinement of sick patients should be reserved for those persons who truly threaten the public’s health.


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