Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Lawyers Join Doctors in Medical-Legal Partnerships

At a growing number of cities across the nation, lawyers don’t have to chase ambulances anymore – ambulances are bringing sick and injured patients directly to them.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative to connect patients with legal services on issues of health insurance, housing, transportation and access to care.

“Stationing attorneys directly in clinics and hospitals can help individual patients and challenge systems that make it harder for some to be healthy in the first place,” writes Gaby Galvin in U.S. News & World Report.

The move is spearheaded by the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership in Washington, DC.

The idea is to pair doctors and lawyers as early as possible in the patient treatment process. This is important in light of studies that show 60 percent of a person’s health is determined by social factors like legal status, income and insurance.

“Early evidence and federal investments demonstrate the impact legal expertise and services can have on individual patients, and hint at the enormous potential for health care and legal professionals to join forces to promote population health,” says the website for the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership. “But making these collaborative services a normative part of today’s health care system requires an enormous cultural shift.”

The primary focus of the NCMLP is on the poor and underserved. But officials say the model of putting lawyers on the medical front lines can apply to the larger population as well.

Beginnings in Boston

The concept of medical-legal partnerships can be traced to the mid-1990s and a pilot project at Boston Medical Center. A pediatric administrator at the center observed that many patients had housing and health needs that hindered their recovery. A lawyer was brought in to help them.

The experiment proved so successful that it planted the seed for what in 2006 would become the  National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

“We’ve grown from about 75 medical-legal partnerships to now over 330, and we’re covered in 46 states and the District of Columbia,” says Joel Teitelbaum, a co-director of the NCMLP along with Ellen Lawton, in the US News story. “Since the national center moved to George Washington University in 2012, we have seen much more connection to health associations, such as the Association of American Medical Colleges, and agencies within the federal government.”

Embedding Lawyers in Clinics

Medical-legal alliances are not new. But the energy for such efforts has typically come from the legal side. What makes the NCMPL initiative unique is that it is being driven by doctors.

“Our hope at the national center is that the balance really begins to even out and the health system realizes, as a matter of patient care, quality and health equity, and in many cases as a matter of return on investment, they should begin thinking about embedding a lawyer as part of a holistic health team,” says Teitelbaum. “If I had my way, there would be training not only around public health and population health in medical school, but also talking about social and structural barriers to good health…. [T]here are social and legal needs that have legal remedies and are best addressed by those trained in the law.”

Medical-legal partnerships come in different shapes and sizes. Sometimes, it’s as basic as a referral service in a health clinic or hospital. At the other end of the spectrum, lawyers are embedded at the healthcare site.

Regardless of the form, the goal is the same: to provide holistic treatment through a combination of medical and legal intervention.  

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About the Author

Jay Reeves

jay.reeves@ymail.com | 919-619-2441

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Over the course of his 35-year career he was a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, legal editor, Legal Aid staff attorney and insurance risk manager. Today he helps lawyers and firms put more mojo in their practice through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations.

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