Bridging the divide between law, medicine

      Too often, doctors and lawyers have come to see each other as enemies, opposing sides in the ongoing debate over malpractice law and tort reform.

      But sometimes, they find common ground.

      One of those times was Wednesday evening, when Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder came to USF Health to chat with medical students taking part in the Scholarly Concentration on law and medicine.


Circuit Judge Gregory Holder chats with USF College of Medicine students who are studying law and medicine.

     Holder, who recently handled a case involving a child who was killed, gave students an overview of the law. But David Sindler asked him a more personal question:

      “How hard is it to keep your emotions in check?”

      And just like that, lawyer and future doctors were talking about one of the hardest issues they will face in their careers.

      “You have to do it, and I do it,” Holder told Sindler, a first-year student. “But it’s very difficult. I’ve heard, and seen photos of, absolutely horrifying things that human beings have done to other human beings.”

      Just as these students will see themselves in the emergency room, Holder pointed out.

      “You’ll train for it medically, and I trained for it legally,” he told them. “You have to be able to separate your emotions.”


Judge Holder lays down the law…or at least, explains it.

      It gave Sindler a new perspective.

      “At the end of the day, we’re all human beings,” Sindler said after the freewheeling discussion. “Most people are affected by injustice and don’t like it when others are harmed. Whether you’re a doctor or a judge, hopefully at the end of the day, you see we’re all trying to do something good.”

      It was that kind of understanding that Jay Wolfson was hoping students would gain by meeting with Holder, as well as by participating in the Black Robe Program, which also brings lawyers and judges together with doctors and medical students.

     “We saw it as an opportunity to build communication bridges across law and medicine, so that we can better understand each other,” said Dr. Wolfson, associate vice president for health law, policy, and safety. “There’s an awful lot of enmity that tends to exist, especially when a patient files a lawsuit. …Unfortunately there’s an adversarial relationship, but it doesn’t need to be adversarial.”


Jay Wolfson introduces Judge Holder.

     Better relationships, Dr. Wolfson added, make for better law.

     “We need to engage in good science, in good medicine, and good law,” he said. “That’s something that Judge Holder has embraced.”

      Holder’s explanation of the legal system was dotted with jokes and examples drawn from the headlines. His definition of compensatory damages included this illustration: “If Derek Jeter and I are both in a car accident, and we each lose our right arm, who is more injured?”


     He also gave the group some frank advice about how to avoid lawsuits.

     “The best advice I can give you is communicate with your patients honestly and openly,” he said.

      And if a doctor winds up in court anyway?

     “If you speak down to the jury, they will tune you out like a bad radio station,” he said. “There’s a natural distrust of doctors.”

— Story by Lisa Greene, photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications