WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Wake Forest University’s Elder Law Clinic and Internal Medicine Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine Section have together joined the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP), a national network of partnership sites that are dedicated to improving the health and well-being of vulnerable populations, including the elderly.
The Elder Law Clinic, part of the university’s law school, and the Geriatrics Section, part of the medical school, have worked together for many years to teach young professionals and to provide holistic care to older adults. The MLP network includes programs in more than 200 hospitals and health centers nationwide that integrate legal assistance into the medical setting, seeking to eliminate barriers to health care in order to help vulnerable populations meet their basic needs and stay healthy.
“We do a better job for our older clients and their families because of our unique access to medical expertise,” said Clinical Prof. Kate Mewhinney, who has been the managing attorney of the Elder Law Clinic since its inception at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in 1991.
“The geriatricians and the geriatric psychiatrists, social workers, nurses and other health professionals at the Medical Center have helped us to speak the language of health care. This way, when our clients face issues related to health, our legal work can proceed smoothly. My students learn about a wide range of health law issues, such as nursing home laws, Medicaid, mental capacity issues, guardianship and bioethics. These are just some of the ways in which the law and health overlap for older people.”
According to Hal Atkinson, M.D., associate professor and director of the Geriatric Medicine Fellowship program, joining the national MLP network is a natural step for Wake Forest. “We have been productively collaborating in the education of law students and geriatrics trainees not only with conferences and lectures, but also with real hands-on experiences in both medical and legal settings. Joining the network now will allow us to share our local experience in elder law and geriatric medicine nationally.”
Since its establishment in 1986, the J. Paul Sticht Center on Aging at Wake Forest Baptist has provided multidisciplinary care for older patients. Five years later the Elder Law Clinic was created – a unique setting that provided free assistance to seniors while also teaching law students about “elder law.” Law students learn from medical professionals, who in turn are exposed to legal issues that their patients face.
The two professions can easily refer clients and patients to each other. When an older patient has a legal problem, the health care team and social workers refer them to the Elder Law Clinic. Soon after the referral, law students meet with patients in their hospital rooms, or at home if patients have been discharged.
Recently, both the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association passed resolutions that support medical-legal partnerships as a way of improving the lives of vulnerable populations. “Wake Forest was ahead of the curve in creating a partnership between the medical and law schools in the Sticht Center,” Mewhinney said. “We are graduating professionals who are prepared to care for the surge of baby-boomers, the first of whom turn 65 in 2011.
“Joining this national network will help us share our experiences with other programs that serve older adults. It is going to allow us to learn how to improve what we do as well.”
Ellen Lawton, executive director of the National Center for MLP, said, “We are thrilled that Wake Forest’s program is now part of the national MLP Network. Although MLP began in pediatrics, it’s clear that integrated legal and medical care can offer huge benefits to older adults, especially those struggling with financial stress, caregiver needs and long-term care concerns. As MLP expands to different patient populations, programs like the Wake Forest partnership will play a pivotal role in redefining and improving the way we serve vulnerable individuals and families.”