April 1, 2019 - A University of Virginia School of Law professor drew a direct parallel between racial injustice and chronic health issues during a lecture last week at the University of Houston Law Center.
Professor Dayna Bowen Matthew spoke on the topic “Preventive Lawyering: Empirical Evidence That Medical Legal Partnerships Improve Lives,” as part of the Health Law & Policy Institute’s 2018-19 Speaker Series.
“One of the things that we care most about is the intersection between health and justice, between health and human rights,” Matthew said. “Martin Luther King was famously quoted for saying, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, health inequality is among the most inhumane.’”
Matthew elaborated that the reason why health is integral to justice and human rights is because it enables people to participate as a member of society.
“People who are victims of racial discrimination, or perceive that they are, have a different allostatic load,” she said of health effects caused by chronic stress. “Their immune system is compromised,” she said.
Essentially, people who experience racial discrimination will inherently be more susceptible to illness in general or death in medical settings, Matthew said, pointing to the increase of health disparities across races to illustrate this point.
“The gap between black and white maternal mortality numbers is higher now than it was in 1850,” she said. “These gaps are not explainable by socioeconomic status, not by education, not by income or wealth.”
Matthew proposed that although health outcomes may rely significantly on race, they depend on five social determinants as well: housing, food, school, criminal justice and environment.
“Social determinants of health actually matter much more than, let’s say, clinical, even biological influences on health outcomes,” she said.
Inequity among these social factors is what negatively impacts population health, but legal repair could alleviate the problem, according to Matthew.
“My contention at the end of the day is that medical-legal partnerships are the way, in fact one of the most important ways, to equalize discrimination and maldistribution in the social determinants of health,” Matthew said.
These partnerships aim to provide healthcare in a new way by integrating the services of lawyers, doctors, and sometimes other professionals like social workers, into one cohesive team that aids victims of racial discrimination and inequitable social determinants of health.
“It [the medical-legal partnership] will disrupt poverty, it will disrupt racial discrimination, and it will begin to equalize the distribution of the social determinants of health,” Matthew said.
Medical-legal partnerships have so far reduced inpatient hospital stays by 33 percent and decreased missed doctors appointments by 98 percent, according to research done by Matthew.
“That’s what medical-legal partnerships have the power to do. To bring an integrated, professional group to bear on problems.”