Health and Justice Initiative

Sometimes, the best prescription is to see a lawyer

2016MLA-PHC-HealthAndJusticeDoctors will tell you that having a safe, healthy home and medical insurance are integral factors in treating illness and maintaining good overall health. But can a doctor prescribe better housing or coverage for a patient?

If the doctors work for Providence in Spokane, Wash., the answer can be yes.

In 2015, Providence partnered with Gonzaga University and a community group, the Center for Justice, to create the Health and Justice Initiative. Law students work part-time on location with Providence’s Family Medicine, Internal Medicine and Psychiatry residency programs, where they accept referrals and do brief consultations. Patients seen by the clinic staff are primarily low-income and therefore less likely to have access to an attorney.

The legal advice could come in handy if, for example, a patient’s home has toxic mold and isn’t safe to live in. The law students may work to break the patient’s lease and get deposits returned.

The justice initiative works out of Providence’s Residency Clinic site in Spokane. Patients seen by the clinic staff are primarily low-income. A recent study in Washington found that 71 percent of families experiencing poverty have one or more unmet civil legal need.

The program trains the law students and medical residents so that they understand how medicine and the law can work together for positive patient outcomes. The staff also advocates for changes in laws or policies that may unintentionally harm the poor and vulnerable. For example, Spokane police were persuaded to change a policy that encouraged landlords to evict anyone involved in domestic violence on their property – even the victims. The legal team is also part of a multidisciplinary effort focused on super users of area emergency departments.

Having health care and legal professionals work together is a growing trend in the United States. The Spokane group is working with similar groups across the country to share best practices and is learning how to collaborate with emergency services, social services and other who serve at-risk members of our communities.