May 24, 2012

Medical-legal partnerships can improve child health: speaker

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Barry Zuckerman, M.D., right, talks with Shari Barkin, M.D., and fields questions during his recent visit to discuss medical-legal partnerships. (photo by Steve Green)

Medical-legal partnerships can improve child health: speaker

Barry Zuckerman, M.D., chief of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and emeritus director of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership (NCMLP), visited the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt recently to discuss the benefits of lawyers working in conjunction with health providers and families to better serve children.

Zuckerman hosted a Pediatric Grand Rounds lecture, “Transforming Care to Reduce Health Disparities,” followed by a lunchtime question-and-answer session with Children’s Hospital physicians, nurses, social workers and administration, as well as pro-bono lawyers and state government representatives from the Department of Maternal and Child Health.

The group discussed how to effectively implement medical-legal partnerships in the hospital.
His organization, NCMLP, helps incorporate legal assistance into the medical setting. Lawyers work closely with physicians to identify and solve adverse social circumstances that are contributing to patients’ medical conditions. The idea began in 1993 with a single attorney to serve families at Boston Medical Center, and the model has spread to more than 230 sites nationwide.

“When you have a complicated medical problem, you might need a medical specialist or surgeon,” said Zuckerman. “If you have a complicated social problem and you have a social worker or someone else butting their heads against a problem, you need a lawyer.”

Zuckerman cited an example of an 11-year-old asthmatic boy who, despite properly using his medications, was suffering from uncontrolled asthma attacks. After the family and pediatrician identified that pests in the home were the root of the problem, a lawyer was able to step in and improve the housing conditions for the family.

As a result, the boy’s condition improved, which led to fewer medications and better school attendance.

Zuckerman said patients and families often need help navigating a legal system that is designed, in many ways, to help them.

“As a mutually progressive society, we pass a lot of laws and regulations to provide protections for low-income families to keep them healthy,” said Zuckerman. “If patients have help with this system, as well as access to their basic needs, they are healthier.”