Health Care
2:17 am
Thu April 4, 2013

Lawyers Join Doctors To Ease Patients' Legal Anxieties

Originally published on Fri April 5, 2013 1:44 pm

Two professions that have traditionally had a rocky relationship — doctors and lawyers — are finding some common ground in clinics and hospitals across the country.

In Akron, Ohio, for instance, doctors are studying how adding a lawyer to the health care team can help improve a patient's health.

As a TV drones in the background, about a dozen women and children wait for their names to be called at the Summa women's clinic in Akron.

In the clinic's conference room, Meredith Watts is awaiting her next case. She's not a doctor or a nurse. She's a lawyer who specializes in housing and consumer work.

Legal Advice To Help Health Patients

Watts works for Community Legal Aid, a nonprofit that gives free legal help to low-income people in eight Ohio counties. Her firm is housed in a downtown office tower. But Watts prefers working out of the clinic.

"So if somebody comes in to the clinic and they get sent to me and it's a housing problem and I'm here, I can give them advice directly on site," she says.

Watts' role on the team is to help solve issues that might affect a patient's health but are outside a doctor's control.

"Let's say you're under threat of eviction because of something that happened," she says. "That's going to cause a significant amount of anxiety, potentially, and then you're suffering from these anxiety problems that wouldn't have happened if we had been able to intervene and perhaps help with the eviction problem," she says.

A Type Of Preventative Law

And, as a lawyer, Watts makes house calls. One of her clients, Shirley Kimbrough, lives in a subsidized housing unit in a north Akron neighborhood.

The clinic referred Kimbrough to Watts, who last year helped her move into this handicapped-accessible apartment to care for her disabled granddaughter.

"If I hadn't had her to help me I would have lost my granddaughter because I had already lost my daughter, and I don't think I could have stood that," Kimbrough says.

Attorney Marie Curry runs Akron's medical-legal partnership.

"It's exciting to be able to do what we think of as preventative law, rather than always being crisis intervention because you can help something not happen, before it becomes a crisis," Curry says.

'It Doesn't Make Any Sense'

But not all lawyers are quick to embrace a cozy new relationship with their old adversaries.

"I don't understand how a medical clinic needs an attorney to be a part of its team. It doesn't any make sense to me," says Allen Schulman, a malpractice attorney in nearby Canton who takes a more traditional view of the two professions.

"I think there has historically been an animosity between lawyers and doctors. I think we share some of the blame, and I think the medical profession shares some of the blame," he says.

But back at the Akron women's clinic, researcher Michele McCarroll says doctors here like having a lawyer down the hall from the examination room.

A 'One-Stop Shop'

"We are trying to meet the needs of the patients right here on site in kind of a one-stop shop where we know things ... such as social issues, can make a difference in health issues," she says.

McCarroll and Akron's Community Legal Aid lawyers have enrolled 100 women in the first randomized study to determine whether having a lawyer on-site really does improve health outcomes.

They're measuring conditions like blood pressure, stress and other health factors in two groups of women who had legal issues. One group was introduced to a clinic lawyer; the other group was given a number for the legal help line.

They plan to present their results next week at the national Medical-Legal Partnership Summit in Washington.

Copyright 2013 WKSU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wksu.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, here are two professions that have traditionally had a rocky relationship - doctors and lawyers. But they're finding some common ground in hundreds of clinics and hospitals across the country.

Jeff St. Clair, from member station WKSU, reports on a study that's being carried out in Akron, Ohio. It looks at how adding a lawyer to a medical clinic team can help improve patient care.

JEFF ST. CLAIR, BYLINE: As a TV drones in the background, about a dozen women and children wait for their names to be called at the Summa Women's Clinic in Akron.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

ST. CLAIR: In the clinic's conference room, Meredith Watts is awaiting her next case. She's not a doctor, or a nurse. She's a lawyer.

MEREDITH WATTS: I specialize in housing and in some consumer work.

ST. CLAIR: Watts works for Community Legal Aid, a nonprofit that gives free legal help to low-income people in eight Ohio counties. Her firm is housed in a downtown office tower, but Watts prefers working out of here.

WATTS: So if somebody comes into the clinic and they get sent to me, and it's a housing problem and I'm here, I can give them advice directly on site.

ST. CLAIR: Meredith Watts' role on the team is to help solve issues that might affect a patient's health but are outside a doctor's control.

WATTS: Let's say you're under threat of eviction because of something that happened. That's going to cause a significant amount of anxiety, potentially, and then you're suffering from these anxiety problems that wouldn't have happened if we had been able to intervene and perhaps help with the eviction problem.

ST. CLAIR: And as a lawyer, Watts makes house calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHATTING)

ST. CLAIR: We meet client Shirley Kimbrough at her subsidized housing unit in a North Akron neighborhood.

SHIRLEY KIMBROUGH: ...during the summer...

WATTS: OK.

ST. CLAIR: The clinic referred Kimbrough to Watts, who last year helped her move into this handicapped-accessible apartment, to care for her disabled granddaughter.

KIMBROUGH: If I hadn't had her to help me, I would have lost my granddaughter - because I had already lost my daughter. And I don't think I could have stood that.

WATTS: Attorney Marie Curry runs Akron's medical-legal partnership. Rather than chasing ambulances, she tries to keep vulnerable clients out of them.

MARIE CURRY: It's exciting to be able to do what we think of as preventative law, rather than always being crisis intervention, because you can help something not happen before it becomes a crisis.

ST. CLAIR: But not all lawyers are quick to embrace a cozy, new relationship with their old adversaries.

ALLEN SCHULMAN: I don't understand how a medical clinic needs an attorney to be a part of its team. It doesn't make any sense to me.

ST. CLAIR: Allen Schulman is a malpractice attorney in nearby Canton, who takes a more traditional view of the two professions.

SCHULMAN: I think there has historically been an animosity between lawyers and doctors. I think we share some of the blame, and I think the medical profession shares some of the blame.

MICHELE MCCARROLL: Thank you, Phil.

ST. CLAIR: But back at the Akron women's clinic, physician Michele McCarroll likes having a lawyer down the hall from her examination room. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: McCarroll is not a physician but a researcher who holds a Ph.D.]

MCCARROLL: In the sense that we are trying to meet the needs of the patients right here on site in kind of a one-stop shop where we know things that make a difference, such as social issues can make a difference in health issues.

ST. CLAIR: McCarroll and Akron's Community Legal Aid lawyers have enrolled 100 women in the first, randomized study to determine whether having a lawyer on site really does improve health outcomes. They're measuring things like blood pressure, stress, and other health factors in two groups of women who had legal issues. One group was introduced to a clinic lawyer; the other group was given a number for the legal help line. They'll present their results next week at the national medical-legal summit, in Washington.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff St. Clair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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