What this medical student learned as a legal extern

As a law student, I recently was a legal extern at a hospital this summer. It’s a crazy thought because when I started medical school back in Fall 2015, my bus would pass through the pick-up/drop off zone at the hospital every single day at 7:43 a.m. I always saw physicians with their long white coats and coffees in hand walking through the automatic sliding doors. I too saw patients wearing their hospital garments, either taking a stroll outside or sitting on the benches taking in the air and the sun.

There is a place inside called the Gazebo. If memory serves me right, it’s a series of side-by-side beautiful, white gazebos where patients, friends, and family members go to. The most heart-wrenching moment during my time as an extern was when my supervisor and I were walking along the path, and I saw and heard an elderly couple crying into each other’s shoulders. “We lost him … how could God allow such a thing …” When we took a turn around the corner, I was filled with emotion and had to touch my eyes as I felt I was going to cry.

I’ve always known doctors get sued at least once in their lifetimes. Ar the hospital I worked at, it seemed doctors were getting sued for the same reason. “Could you have diagnosed my condition earlier? Could the emotional, physical, and financial distress I am suffering been lessened, or even taken away? Did you really do everything possible for the management of my condition? Or was there negligence in the course of my care?” Every hospital has its own legal team that represents not only the interests of its physicians, but also the interests of the patients.

My time moreover has reminded me just how hard it is to be a patient. You are faced with a level of uncertainty that, at times, can seem insurmountable. What is the suspicious lesion on my MRI? Is it cancer? If it is, is chemo the next step? How will my family be affected emotionally and financially? Why me? What did I do to deserve this? And if my time left on this Earth is limited by my diagnosis, how much longer do I have to enjoy the things I love to do? How much time do I have left with my friends and family?

The hospital sees patients every day not only from around town, but from overseas who trust our providers enough to make the trip, in hopes of finding concrete answers to their questions. There is no quiet day in the hospital, but it’s because of the dynamic atmosphere that the very best care and support possible is being given to patients.

Being a legal extern for the last ten weeks, for the first time, I saw the nexus of law and medicine firsthand. I had the pleasure of researching multiple issues including ones centered around Medicare, EMTALA, scenarios of informed consent policy, and what the duties of various medical providers (including physicians, nurses, PT/OT) are to patients. I also had the opportunity to prepare discovery and communicating with physicians and outside legal counsel. But most of all, my meetings where both legal and physicians sat across the table from one another to discuss how to improve patient care and satisfaction were the most rewarding. I do see myself as a lifelong patient advocate and hope to one day be there not only for the patients I care for, but for all patients in the institution. I’ve always had three goals that guide my life. To find my better half. To always be there for my parents and my family. And lastly, to help as many people I possibly can in my lifetime. It is through both legal and medical lenses that I see myself fulfilling this last goal.

Lawyers get a bad rap. They are not out there to get people. They are not money hungry. They want to help people as much as physicians do. And the similarities between the two are much more than the differences. From the medical side, you interview the patient, make a note of the diagnostic clues and the history, and formulate the best differential diagnosis and plan of action. From the legal side, you interview the client, make a note of the history and background, and formulate the best plan of action based on the evidence. For both, you almost always seek collateral so that the most informed decisions are being made on behalf of your patient or client. For both, you often engage in conversations, either in-person, virtually, over the phone or by e-mail, to convincingly support and defend your patient or client when it comes to presenting their case to others involved (whether it be other providers or other interested parties).

With all that said, I am very grateful for all the people I met, for all the fun and conversations, and most of all to learn and truly appreciate the legal side of hospital operations.

Ton La, Jr. is a medical student and can be reached on LinkedIn.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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