Patients get a HeLPing hand

Medico-legal projects have been proven to improve patient health outcomes in the United States. A joint program by Maurice Blackburn, the Alfred Hospital and the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University has brought a similar approach to Australia. 

The initiative, known as the HeLP (Health Legal Partnership) Patient Legal Clinic, was launched in early 2014, and aims to provide free legal advice to patients undergoing treatment at the Alfred Hospital.

The project arose from the medico-legal partnerships that have been set up throughout the United States, where the experience has been that health outcomes can be improved if a patients legal issues can be addressed. The 2012 Legal Australia-Wide Survey into legal needs also found that legal concerns have a negative impact on health, suggesting the benefits could be replicated here. It makes sense that if a patient can ease the burden of their legal problems, they will be able to focus on their health and treatment.

Maurice Blackburn provides lawyers on a pro bono basis two days per week. Patients and their families are referred to the HeLP clinic by their social worker, doctor, nurse or any other health professional. The concerns could relate to any legal issue, as long as it is impacting on the patients health.

How can the HeLP program assist patients?

In the two years since the clinic's opening, Maurice Blackburn's lawyers have assisted 492 patients, with more than 30% of these patients needing assistance for more than one issue at a time. The main areas of assistance relate to end-of-life planning (such as wills and powers of attorney), superannuation, crime, family law, and property and housing issues. 

The HeLP clinic has also assisted in the areas of family law, domestic violence, immigration, social security, infringements and discrimination. In fact, the only legal issues the clinic cant help with are personal injury ones — TAC, WorkCover, medical negligence and the like because the clinic is not supposed to be a source of work for the firm running it.

How the service operates

The clinic provides a referral service, which means that only preliminary legal advice is given. If further assistance is required, the patient is then referred to other public and private legal services that can provide ongoing support. Often the referral is to one of Melbournes many community legal centres, but sometimes people need to be referred to private firms, most of whom have been providing some level of free advice and assistance.

The focus has been on making hot referrals, which means that the clinic calls the community legal centre or firm, gets preliminary advice and actually arranges the appointment. Patients are much more likely to follow up if this occurs, rather than if they're simply given a name and a telephone number to ring themselves.

Maurice Blackburn's involvement in this important service not only helps the patients, many of whom are suffering from terminal illnesses, but it also assists the hospital patients who don't have legal problems hanging over their heads will ideally be more focussed and engaged patients. Access to free powers of attorney is also useful because it helps provide certainty for health professionals when communicating with the patient's family and friends.

Tom Ballantyne is a senior associate in Maurice Blackburn's Melbourne office and is one of the lawyers providing pro bono services at the HeLP Clinic.

TOPIC: Patient safety
RELATED LEGAL SERVICES: Medical negligence

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Tom Ballantyne

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Tom Ballantyne is a Principal in Maurice Blackburn’s medical negligence department. He is a Law Institute of Victoria Personal Injury Accredited Specialist who sees clients in Melbourne, Dandenong and Frankston. Tom joined the firm as a trainee lawyer in 2006, and has practiced exclusively in medical negligence claims since 2007. He also spent two years working in the United Kingdom. “I was led to practice law at Maurice Blackburn because I always wanted to work in an area that would make a difference to people. It’s rewarding to help people navigate a distressing and sometimes life-changing experience. I’m inspired by helping people achieve a measure of justice and financial stability.” Tom’s skills include running complicated litigation across all areas of health care – obstetrics, delay in diagnosis, orthopaedics and emergency departments. He has achieved significant results for clients including settling cases involving catastrophic injuries and lifetime care needs, and is one of three Maurice Blackburn lawyers listed by the prestigious Doyles Guide as a leading lawyer in his field. “I provide legal advice and act for people injured by malpractice and poor medical treatment, such as birth injuries, delay in diagnosis of cancer and other diseases, orthopaedic and other types of surgery, wrongful birth, catastrophic injuries, and fatal accidents." Tom also represents families at Coronial Inquests, acting on behalf of the families of people who have died following poor medical treatment. Tom also has a passion for promoting medical law issues in the community. He is the author of The Legal Prescription blog, which covers topical legal and medical issues. He has also been published in the Law Institute Journal. Memberships & accreditations Law Institute of Victoria Member Law Institute of Victoria Personal Injury Accredited Specialist Australian Lawyers Alliance State Committee Medical Negligence Representative Awards Doyles Guide - Medical Negligence Compensation Lawyer, Vic - Leading lawyer, 2016 ...

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