Digital Health and Legal Aid: The Lawyer Will Skype You Now

Angela Fralish, MJLST Invited Blogger

According to Dr. Shirley Musich’s research article: Homebound Older Adults: Prevalence, Characteristics, Health Care Utilization and Quality of Care, homebound patients are among the top 5% of medical service users with persistently high expenses. As it stands, about 3.6 million homebound Americans are in need of continuous medical care, but with the cost of healthcare rising, the number of elderly people retiring, hospitals closing in increasing numbers and physician shortages anticipated, caring for the homebound is becoming expensive and impractical. In an article titled Care of the Chronically Ill at Home: An Unresolved Dilemma in Health Policy for the United States, author Karen Buhler-Wilkerson notes that even after two centuries of various experiments to deliver and finance home health care, there are still too many unresolved issues.

One potential solution could be at the crossroads of technology, medicine and law. Telemedicine is a well-known medical technology providing cost effective medical care for the homebound. Becker’s reports that telemedicine visits are often more affordable, and access is a very important component, both in the sense of enabling patients to communicate through a smartphone, and the ability for clinicians to reach patients at a distance, particularly those for whom travel to a hospital on a weekly basis for necessary follow-ups or check-ins would be costly and is not feasible. Telemedicine is a form of affordable technology reaching homebound patients.

Legal aid organizations are also beginning to integrate virtual services for the homebound. For example, at Illinois Legal Aid Online, clients are able to have a live consultation with a legal professional, and in Maryland, a virtual courthouse is used for alternative dispute resolution proceedings. Some states, such as Alaska and New York, have advocated for virtual consults and hearings as part of a best practices model. On September 22nd of this year, the ABA launched a free virtual legal advice clinic to operate as an online version of a walk in clinic. However, despite these responsive measures, virtual technology for legal aid is expensive and burdensome.

But what about the cancer patient who can’t get out of bed to come in for a legal aid appointment, but needs help with a disability claim to pay their medical bills? Could diversifying telehealth user interfaces help cure the accessibility gap for both medicine and law?

Some organizations have already begun collaborations to address these issues. Medical Legal Partnerships work together to provide comprehensive care through cost effective resource pooling of business funds and federal and corporate grant money. Partnerships resolve the sociolegal determinants impacting the health of a patient. One classic case example is the homebound patient with aggravated asthma living in a house with mold spores.  A lawyer works to get the housing up to code, which reduces the asthma, and consequently future medical costs. Lawyers resolve the economic factors perpetuating a health condition while physicians treat it biologically. These partnerships are being implemented nationwide because of their proven results in decreasing the cost of care. In the case of telehealth, the homebound asthmatic patient, could log on to their computer, or work through an app on their phone, to show the attorney the living conditions in high resolution, in addition to receiving medical treatment.

The government seems to be favorable to these resolutions. The Health Resources and Services Administration allocated $18 million to health center collaborations seeking to improve quality care through health information technology. Further, the FDA has created the Digital Health program to encourage and foster collaborations in technologies to promote public health. Last year alone, Congress awarded $4 million to the Legal Services Corporation, who then disbursed that money among 15 legal aid organizations, many of which “will use technology to connect low-income populations to resources and services.” Telehealth innovation is a cornerstone for medical and legal professions committed to improvements in low cost quality patient care, especially for the homebound.

Medical facilities could even extend this same technology profitably by offering patients an in-house “attorney consult” service to improve quality of care. Much like the invention of the convenient cordless phone, a telehealth phone could be used in house or outpatient to give a health organization a leading market edge in addition to decreasing costs. Technology has yet to fully develop the number of ways that telehealth can be used to deliver legal services to improve healthcare.

So if there is a multidisciplinary call for digital aid, why aren’t we seeing more of it on a daily basis? For one, the regulatory law landscape may cause confusion. The FDA governs medical devices, the FTC regulates PHI data breaches and the FCC governs devices using broadcast services or electromagnetic spectrum. Telehealth touches on all of these and results in jurisdictional overlap amongst regulatory agencies. Other reasons may involve resistance to new technology and ever-evolving legislation and policies. In Teladoc, Inc., v. Texas Medical Board, a standard of care issue was raised when the medical board issued an injunction for physicians who prescribed medicine, but had not yet seen the patient in person. One physician in the case stated that without telehealth, his homebound patient would receive no treatment. Transitioning from traditional in person consultations to virtual assistance can greatly improve the health of patient, but has brought an entourage of notable concerns.

Allegedly, the use of telehealth was first executed by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 when he made a phone call to his doctor. Over 140 years later, this technology is used by NASA for outer space health consults. While the technology is still relatively new, especially for collaborative patient treatment by doctors and lawyers, used wisely, it can be an interdisciplinary collaborative renaissance in using technology to improve healthcare systems and patient lives.

From all perspectives, virtual aid is well funded future component of both the medical and legal fields. It can be used in the legal sense to help people in need, in the business sense as an ancillary convenience service generating profits, or in the medical sense to provide care for the homebound. The trick will be to find engineers who can secure multiuse interfaces while meeting federal regulations and public demand. Only time will tell if such a tool can be efficiently developed.

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