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Nurse legal consultants emerge as key players in litigation

Catherine Betram (Kristina Sherk Photography)

Catherine Bertram (Kristina Sherk Photography)

When lawyers need an expert to help with a medical-related case – a malpractice lawsuit or personal injury case, for instance – they need a physician, right?

Not necessarily.

Legal experts say that in many cases, perhaps the majority, a nurse legal consultant is the better choice.

In a recent article on its website, the Expert Institute, an organization that connects attorneys with industry experts, listed five ways that legal nurse consultants can help attorneys with their cases.

Nurses, the article stated, can make sense of medical records, understand the standard of care, pinpoint “proximate cause,” assess damages and assist with case strategy.

“Attorneys pursuing any type of injury cases should consider connecting with a legal nurse consultant to assist with case preparations,” the article stated.

Anne D. Pile (Submitted Photo)

Anne D. Pile (Submitted Photo)

Local experts in the field, including both attorneys who handle these cases and the nurses who help them, agree.

“I think they’re extremely valuable and one of the better tools to use,” said Catherine Bertram, a medical malpractice attorney in Washington, D.C. whose clients are patients. “When you have a nurse who understands both medical malpractice and has the varied experience as a nurse, that gives you a very important tool for your practice.”

Bertram, the former director of risk management at Georgetown Hospital, uses a nurse consultant to screen potential cases, look at the medical records, do medical searches and reach out to potential sources.

“A nurse can talk to a doctor while a lawyer can’t,” Bertram said. “She’s worth her weight in gold – helpful to me and the clients.”

Bertram said she has noticed more and more lawyers using nurses in medical cases, especially lawyers, like her, who take the plaintiffs’ side.

Scott Perry, a personal injury attorney and founding partner of Perry Charnoff, based in Washington, D.C., said he has used nurse consultants his entire 20 years working in the field.

“I’ve done hundreds of medical malpractice cases in my career, and maybe in 90 percent of them used nursing consultants, to varying degrees,” he said.

Like other attorneys, Perry will use a physician if the case involves a specific specialty. But nurses, with their broader range of knowledge and experience, are in other ways more valuable, he said, and can be relied on to do the bulk of the work.

Anne Pile, owner of Elite Legal Nurses, in Hagerstown, and a former critical care nurse, has been a full-time nurse legal consultant since 2012, working for multiple law firms and always on the plaintiff’s side.

“I saw bad health care happening,” during her years as a nurse, said Pile, asked why she got into the field. “Sadly, medicine had become a business rather than concern for the patients. As an advocate for patients, I decided the best way to continue being that advocate was to help those already injured.”

A key part of her job is that of gatekeeper, Pile said, reviewing possible cases to see if they should move forward.

“We find the needles in the haystack,” she said. “I can tell what’s sticking out of a record 10 times better than an attorney.”

Nurses like her, better experienced in reading a variety of electronic medical records, also often can tell what’s “sticking out” better than doctors, she said.

The nurses have another big advantage over doctors:  They are dramatically cheaper, costing anywhere from one-half to one-quarter as much.

Marcia Bell has worked as a nurse for 40 years and, for the past 15, as a nursing consultant, a business she runs out of her home in Laurel. Unlike Pile, who only works on the plaintiff’s side, Bell has worked on both sides, the plaintiff’s and the accused.

“I feel like I’m more believable as an expert if I do some of both,” she said. “Also, if I do both, I can better think about the other side of” the dispute.”

She got into the business decades ago after she attended a legal conference in San Antonio that had her thinking about going to law school. Instead, she moved to Maryland, got certified as a nurse consultant and, for the past 15 years, has worked in both professions.

“A nurse can save an attorney money,” she said. “They know the ins and outs of how a hospital system works, and they can more thoroughly review the records. They know what to look for, and they can explain it to an attorney.”