The burgeoning field of health law has become increasingly important as changes in medical and health care systems have permeated society. In former times, medicine was a fairly simple business; people went to a family doctor for routine ailments or to a local hospital for more serious procedures for most of their medical treatments.
The dentist, too, was a local practitioner who handled all but the most complex cases. People lived as best they could until disease or injury cut them down.
Advances in medical science have opened new approaches to combating serious trauma, disease, and mental disorders. HMOs have replaced home remedies as the first line of defence against an increasing variety of maladies.
Hospitals have become research and teaching facilities, no longer just places to go to wait for a recovery from surgery.
As medical knowledge has advanced, doctors and other health professionals have found it necessary to specialise in narrow fields of practice. Allied professions such as psychotherapy, rehabilitation, laboratory testing, and others now support primary medical services.
In the workplace, medical insurance has become a necessity rather than a luxury in the face of rising medical costs, particularly the enormous expenses associated with catastrophic major medical situations.
The cost of health services has escalated consistently to finance this increasingly complex system. Medical malpractice lawsuits and government regulations have contributed to the rising costs passed on to consumers.
The insurance industry has struggled to develop managed-care systems to provide more affordable medical services. Congress and state legislatures have engaged periodically in a national health care debate which continues.
All of this suggests that this isn’t your grandfather’s health care system anymore. What should be clear, however, is that health care permeates our lives. People today utilize a variety of health care professionals in a diversity or approaches, many of which were unheard of even a generation ago.
Significantly, there has been a major shift for both patients and professionals away from treatment towards prevention. Diet, exercise, and mental health are examples of ways people today reduce the risks of health care problems.
This trend in turn interacts with two other phenomena. This first may be described as patient autonomy: the right of a patient to make decisions about what to do with his or her body. This concept differs from the paternalistic model of traditional medicine, in which patients deferred to the informed judgment of their doctors.
Patients today want more information and want to make more decisions about their prevention and treatment alternatives.
The second phenomenon is that people are living longer. Actuarial tables demonstrate that life expectancies today are longer than for any period in history. Old people today are in their eighties, not in their sixties or forties as in some primitive civilization.
Demographically, there are more older people in society. In our time, some diseases have been virtually eliminated while others that were unheard of in the past have emerged to become major health problems.
It should come as no surprise that such a massive industry as health care should produce a host o attendant legal problems, or that such problems often require the services of lawyers to address them.
Although lawyers are not well regarded in some quarters of the health field, it is almost impossible to imagine so many diverse rights and interests being protected without lawyers, as if one could click her heels three times and the health care crisis would evaporate and society return to those bygone days when everyone had a friendly family physician who made house calls.