Healthcare News & Insights

Why are some docs now referring patients to lawyers?

Just how comprehensive should health care be? New programs that marry medical care and legal aid are changing how the two disciplines interact.

Physicians and lawyers don’t always have the most warm and fuzzy relationships, but new partnerships could change that.

At nearly 200 health care organizations, doctors are referring patients to legal aid societies when they find out about legal issues that are negatively impacting the patient’s well-being. Doctors, mostly pediatricians, but also some oncology and geriatric specialists, are specially trained to inquire about day-to-day issues that can effect a patient’s health.

When red flags are uncovered (a landlord who won’t remove mold or lead paint, a child’s untreated learning disabilities, etc.) doctors can refer the patient to a designated legal aid society for assistance.

The idea is that the questions can help the physician gain a better understanding of potential threats to the patient’s health. And if legal aid can remedy the situation, the patient winds up getting better overall care.

Anecdotal evidence says the programs work.

The New York Times reported on one new mother whose newborn wasn’t gaining as much weight as expected. The pediatrician discovered the mother was subsisting almost entirely on oatmeal to save her meager resources. (The mother was on unpaid maternity leave, and her application for food stamps was collecting dust in a government office.)

A paralegal got the mother and baby supplemental formula that day. And within a week, food stamps and temporary cash assistance were in place. The baby is now perfectly healthy.

While some doctors may balk at the idea of sending patients to lawyers, for fear some would use the resource to make malpractice claims, legal aid workers say those kinds of issues are beyond their mandate and wouldn’t be filed by them.

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