Bridging the gap between medicine and the law

By Ceci Dowling

Elizabeth Kennedy, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, strives to bridge the gap between patients, medical institutions, medical practitioners and the law.

Kennedy (BA 1975, LLB(Hons) 1975, LLM 1983, Grad. Dip. Health and Medical Law 1998) was first drawn to law when she encountered the architecture of the old law cloisters at the University of Melbourne as a teenager. Forty years later, the building that houses her office is contrastingly futuristic.

At the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, housed within the new Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC) in Parkville, the central foyer spirals up to a virtual research institute, patient lounge treatment centres, and gardens that provide the benefits of nature. A modest office in the executive suite is the workstation for Kennedy.

I think the relationship between health institutions and the patient is changing. We’ve moved away from paternalistic health care. Patients have far more autonomy under contemporary legal reforms. Now a multi-disciplinary team of health care professionals plans individualised patient care.

To complement these legal changes there is a health industry trend for in-house lawyers who provide an expert bridge between law and medicine. As in-house lawyer for Peter Mac, Kennedy’s work involves property law and commercial law, but most inspiring is her role in demystifying the law for practitioners and patients. Her approach combines her knowledge of the law with empathy for the patient, the practitioner, the institution and the litigator.

“I think being a good lawyer is being able to see the situation from all sides. I was a litigator early on in my career so I can anticipate what will be argued. And at some point we’ve all been a patient and can relate to how that feels.”

Kennedy found her way to health law when she was asked to be the lawyer on an ethics committee at the old Prince Henry’s Hospital in St Kilda Road.

“I talked to hospital researchers and considered the patient’s perspective,” she says. “My job was to look at the adequacy of the information shared with patients. I loved that interaction with medicine and stayed on that committee for 17 years, so that was my stepping stone into practising health law and acting for hospitals.”

Moving Peter Mac into the new VCCC means that it is now co-located with researchers from the University of Melbourne. The VCCC will play a significant role in tackling cancer by bringing together researchers, clinicians and patients into one location.

“I think the most exciting thing here is that we’re all on the quest for a cure to cancer, and while there is still no cure, there is definitely a treatment that can be offered for every single cancer,” Kennedy says.

“The law is there to keep pace with developments and ensure that practitioners treat their patients as autonomous decision-makers who need to know all the details of their treatment plan, including inherent risks, before it begins.”

Banner image: Elizabeth Kennedy

Credit: Ryuhei Tsukamoto Photography

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 16, October 2016.