Medical-Legal Partnerships: HeLP Clinic as a Bridge to Better Care

By: Katie Broyles, Fall 2017 HeLP Student Intern

Health is determined by many things, including an individual or family’s socioeconomic status, where they live, their external and internal stressors, and whether or not they have access to care. The vast variety of socioeconomic factors alone that contribute to an individual’s health is overwhelming. Often, the health care system simply does not have the resources or capacity to examine many of these issues that can weigh heavily on a patient’s condition, such as access to healthy food, quality education, safe living conditions, quality housing, and job opportunities. In this way, medical-legal partnerships can improve a patient’s condition more than health care alone ever could. When doctors and lawyers come together to examine the social determinants of health and strive to discover solutions that may not involve medicine at all, this improves the patient’s long-term future outcome in ways that a simple visit to the hospital often cannot.

A patient’s legal needs are often obstacles to good health. Regularly, it is a simple letter to a landlord to replace mold-ridden baseboards or an appeal to the Social Security Administration (SSA) for previously-denied Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for a heavily disabled child that can make the most dramatic impact in a patient’s overall health. The need to integrate access to legal services in the medical space is particularly apparent when a patient may not even know he or she has a redressable legal problem to begin with. The patient’s physician also may be unaware of such issues, whether they be pests in the home or a wrongful denial of a patient’s application for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (food stamps). While these are needs that only the law can address, they also have the potential to produce the most substantial impact on a patient’s improvement.

The federal government could learn as well from the success of medical-legal partnerships such as the Health Law Partnership (HeLP), and utilize several factors from the relationship to improve federal health care programs. Medical-legal partnerships exist in more than 200 clinical sites in the United States, and that number is growing by the day. According to Professor Lisa Bliss, Co-Director of the HeLP Legal Services Clinic and Associate Dean of Experiential Education at Georgia State University College of Law, “When [the clinic] began, our intention was to design an educational program that not only helped students become better lawyers, but that trained law students and health professionals to work together to improve health and collaboration among our professions.” This interdisciplinary goal of improved quality access and better outcomes for health care patients, no matter where they live or what their circumstances may be, is the common goal of both medical students and law students involved in the partnership, and should provide a model for state and federal programs to develop further collaboration between the two professions. As the HeLP Clinic has observed directly, this collaboration would in turn promote more holistic success of the health care system, as well as foster an inter-professional environment where practitioners from different fields of study (social workers, nurses, physicians, bioethicists, health professionals, and lawyers) can learn not only to examine the limits of their services, but also how they can best collaborate with other professionals as well.