Reaching the Same Goal Together:The Importance of Medical-Legal Collaboration

hands in go team formation

Editor’s Note: For more about the interprofessional program described in this blog post, check out this Academic Medicine article.

By: Elizabeth Wedegis, Georgia State University College of Law, 2017 Graduate

Though I first joined the Health Law Partnership (HeLP) Legal Services Clinic to gain practical legal experience, I am leaving the clinic with much more, including a better understanding of how both medical and legal professionals have the same goals and can better accomplish those goals together. Lawyers and doctors do collaborate in some instances: when a lawyer needs a medical expert opinion to prove a case, or when a doctor needs legal advice regarding risk management of patient care. Learning to work together as students, however, will prepare lawyers and doctors to address the social determinants of health together.

Each profession is person-centered. In law school, we are taught how to help each client through diligent research and compassionate client communication. In the HeLP Clinic, we see what medical students are taught by participating in classes at Morehouse School of Medicine, attending patient rounds at Children’s at Hughes Spalding, and sitting in on case deliberation in the resident workroom at Hughes Spalding. Both boil down to a fundamental goal: The client/patient comes first.

During patient rounds, I saw how medical professionals provide for their patients, through both medical technologies and through emotional consideration. I remember one patient, a baby with feeding issues, who had previously visited the hospital due to weight loss. After a couple of days in the hospital, he gained weight and was doing better. The doctors suspected an issue at home and called the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). DFCS decided the child should stay with his mother, so he was released to her care. When the child returned to the hospital, the doctors pushed harder for DFCS to find a foster home for him. While recounting the patient’s backstory, the doctor explained “it’s not about [what] the adults [want], it’s about that child in there.” That resonated with me as another reason for collaboration between doctors and lawyers. Both focus on what is best for the individual. In two such person-driven fields, it is important for each to listen to and learn from the views and techniques of the other.

Both professions also strive to balance providing facts and staying compassionate. A doctor once explained to me that, as physicians, “we are scientists, we give the facts,” even when they are not what the patient wants to hear. She and another physician spoke about how some residents are hesitant to include “obesity” as a pregnancy risk because they anticipate a patient’s negative reaction. But, as the doctor explained, it is a risk and, because they must give the facts—it must be added to the chart along with other pregnancy risks that derive from obesity, including heart issues and diabetes.

Similarly, in the HeLP Clinic we have discussed how to handle closing a case when an analysis of the legal requirements for receiving Social Security disability benefits and the medical records show that a child is most likely ineligible. Though providing the facts is an essential part of both professions, compassionately explaining those facts is equally important. I plan to apply what I’ve learned in the HeLP Clinic to my future practice by collaborating with other professionals from the start of each case because, when we have a common goal, working together will always be more rewarding for both the professionals and the client/patient.

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