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Collaboration is key to get the best patient outcomes

Closer collaboration between serious injury solicitors and healthcare professionals can lead to improved outcomes for patients, says physiotherapist-turned-lawyer Glen Whitehead, of Irwin Mitchell.



In years gone by, the relationship between rehabilitation professionals and law firms perhaps wasn’t always the easiest.

But having been a physiotherapist for over 20 years before moving into serious injury law, I have seen from both sides of the fence how relations have improved over time; benefitting patient outcomes in the process.

Historically, healthcare professionals could be somewhat defensive in their dealings with serious injury solicitors.

Certainly when I started out as a physiotherapist in the mid-nineties, litigation generally had negative connotations among my peers and superiors in the therapy community.

This view was explored in the work of Kendall and colleagues in 1997 who introduced us to the concept of Psychosocial Yellow Flags.

When assessing injured individuals and their risk of long term disabilities the presence of litigation was identified as a key influencing factor and was considered to have a detrimental effect upon treatment outcomes.

 Just a few years later more coloured flags were created in order to sub-divide Kendall’s list into smaller groups.

They included factors considered to be within the individual’s control but also highlighted those which may arise from external pressures.

Main and Burton highlighted the presence of conflict arising from an injury claim as an obstacle to recovery.  

At a time when an injured claimant relies heavily upon those around them, close support was perceived to be a negative influence.

The perceived conflict introduced through a personal injury claim and the presence of ‘over solicitous family and healthcare providers’ were given the unenviable symbol of Black Flags, a colour historically reserved for death, punishment and mourning.      

 There was a general belief that, until litigation was concluded, rehabilitation could not progress. I can recall in some physiotherapy out-patient departments the policy was to discharge patients who reported that they had an ongoing claim, advising them to return for treatment once the claim had concluded.

Looking back on this now and contemplating how many patients were discharged rather than exploring more a collaborative solution makes me thankful for the progress we have made over the years.  

Happily the scenario has now changed, with attitudes moving on in recent years and relationships between healthcare professionals and the legal sector now largely good, thus easing the patient-centered rehab process.

In my opinion the two professions are now more closely aligned than ever before. I attribute this to significant changes within the legal sector but also a more accepting approach by those I still encounter in the Physiotherapy profession.

My current and previous roles have shown me that there is actually a lot of common ground between these two worlds.

People often comment on how big a change it must have been to shift from physiotherapy to law. But there are a surprising number of similarities between the two roles with certain skillsets central to both.

As a physiotherapist my knowledge of anatomy, physiology and biomechanics provided the foundation of my approach to diagnosis and treatment.  Today I still rely upon a core body of knowledge and learning but this is founded upon statute and common law. 

Analytical skills are also a common thread.  I have found that the reasoning applied daily as a Physiotherapist is just as important as a Solicitor and forms the basis for my legal analysis, drawing on the same reasoning skills developed over many years.

 As with Physiotherapy, the field of serious injury law is very client-centred and therefore having the interpersonal and soft skills to work with people is essential.

A patient presenting in my clinic would report a key problem, provide a list of symptoms, express a fear of the unknown and an expectation that I would be able to help.

As I meet new legal clients for the first time, the ability to gather information, provide an explanation of the key issues and offer reassurance that I can help provides the same immense job satisfaction.

It forms an important part of what I do and I am privileged to have this new role which still affords me the opportunity to provide that safe pair of hands.

It is clear to me that these are all requirements for both professions. It turns out things aren’t as different as many think.

In my role as a solicitor, I also have the advantage of being able to see and discuss things from a medical perspective.

Partly this means helping colleagues with opinions on medical records, or in deciphering the many abbreviations and acronyms used in healthcare.

But I also regularly have the opportunity to sit in on conferences with consultants and often discuss technical aspects of their reports, an arena in which I feel comfortable having worked with them on a clinical level for two decades. 

Since qualifying in law I have reconnected with many of my contacts from the healthcare world, regularly presenting training sessions for medical staff on the legal process and collaborative working.

The sessions have taken place in hospitals and community settings with a view to further building channels of communication.

The training sessions offer a great opportunity for open dialogue between the two sectors which I truly believe is the key to ensuring continued development of the relationship.

Healthcare professionals who would like to explore this training opportunity further can contact me at the email address at the foot of this article and I welcome further discussions on this theme.

From the sessions so far it is encouraging to see that both groups are evermore understanding of what the other is looking for in delivering the best possible outcomes.

This reflects what I have seen in recent years where there has been a definite shift to more collaboration by all in pursuit of a better service for the client.

The Rehabilitation Code and Serious Injury Guide have been pivotal in aiding this, with an overriding push for early access to rehabilitation.

This collaborative spirit, which helps to prioritise the needs of the client, is also now increasingly evident among defendant firms.

Often, they too want to collaborate more closely with rehab teams and support earlier interventions, which is a big and positive change.

Of course, some companies and insurers are more focused on rehabilitation than others, but we definitely see a growing recognition that collaboration to promote recovery at an early stage is a lot better than trying to deal with problems further down the line.

As I know only too well, working in rehabilitation can be immensely hard work. It’s full on, emotionally and physically, and there are constant changes, resource issues and challenges.

But as lawyers and healthcare professionals we’re all working towards the same outcome – to achieve the best results for the people who need it.

By continuing to build these relationships between the legal and healthcare professions, we are doing all we can to achieve that.

Glen can be contacted at [email protected] or through Twitter @LegalZeal

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