Doctor becomes lawyer to pursue dream of pushing health reforms in PH

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 06 2019 07:45 PM

Dr. Lee Edson Yarcia at the law office he works for. He will soon have the title "attorney" when he takes his oath with other bar passers. Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Like many medical students, interning at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) was a wake-up call for Lee Edson Yarcia. The hospital was always running short on supplies and beds as it accommodated as many patients as possible. 

“It’s so crowded and the resources were so limited,” recalled Yarcia, who eventually became a doctor in 2012. “You would see all types of patients come in. And they would usually come to PGH when their disease has progressed…Some of them would not have money. Many of them come from provinces and they would fall in line as early as 4, 3 am. Even if they do so, the [doctor in charge] would prioritize those who would be at the brink of death.”

Yarcia said it was so difficult to turn down patients who they knew needed medical attention but could not be admitted because of the other patients who had to be prioritized. 

“And I remember the reasons why they got sick is not just purely biomedical but it’s really influenced by the environment they are placed in,” he said.

It was at that point that Yarcia made up his mind that he needed to pursue law. 

Passing the bar

Last year, Yarcia graduated from the UP College of Law. And last Friday, his name was on the list of Bar exam passers

“It was overwhelming,” he said of the experience. “During the rest of the afternoon, it took a while for me to process that I was on my way to become a full-fledged attorney.”

“I was very at peace (after). I have many plans on how I could use the tools I got with this law degree. This is gonna be a new chapter of my life,” Yarcia said. 

But becoming a lawyer for this doctor does not mean turning his back on medicine. Instead, it is his way of addressing problems in public health that he could not tackle as an individual doctor. 

Medical school

As a young student, Yarcia had always wanted to become a scientist. His plan was to enter the University of the Philippines (UP) and pursue molecular biology. But he was given the rare opportunity to study medicine through UP Manila’s Integrated Liberal Arts in Medicine (INTARMED) program. Instead of pursuing two degrees for nine years, INTARMED students become doctors after following an accelerated and intensive seven-year curriculum. 

In medical school, Yarcia gravitated towards public health and health law reform. He won awards for student leadership and was tapped by his professors to help promote the universal health care program in different schools. That was the start of his advocacy work.

When it was time to decide on his specialization, Yarcia considered pursuing surgery. “But the training for surgery…will take 10 years. I wouldn’t be able to do advocacy work,” he said. He chose to specialize in health policy instead.

Health advocacy

His life after obtaining his medical license involved different kinds of policy work and advocacies. He continued working on the universal health care program as part of PhilHealth’s special projects office. 

When he started taking evening law classes at UP Diliman, he was already working for the UP School of Economics as a consultant for the Health Policy and Development Program. His work focused on maternal and child health policy.

He later provided technical assistance to the Department of Health in developing policies for the country’s compliance with the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and wrote a paper on policy reforms for prisoners living with HIV/AIDS.

Drug war

In 2016, when the government launched its war against drugs, Yarcia, who was already a 3rd year law student, was concerned about the focus on punitive action. 

“From my medical background, I knew that people who used drugs, the way to approach the issue of drug-use…should be through a public health approach,” he said. 

He started working with NoBox Transitions Foundation, which advocated a human rights-based approach.

“The goal was very basic. It was just to say that putting people in prison or killing them or basically stigmatizing them and subjecting them to a punitive environment will not work,” he said, citing the United Nations, which has called for a public health approach on the drug problem.

Yarcia helped craft a proposed measure that will shift the National Drug Law to a harm-reduction approach.

“What the proposal for the harm-reduction bill contemplates is that there should be more community-based public health services that could address the root cause for any issues related to drugs,” he said.

It was during that time that he met lawyers who inspired him when it came to advocacy work.

Doctor-lawyer

Today, Yarcia is a junior associate for the Poblador Bautista & Reyes Law Offices, which is known for its litigation work.

“When I’m old and I’m going to retire, I want to look back and say I handled one health portfolio. It could be HIV. It could be drug-policy. It could be health promotion or LGBT rights. I just want to be able to contribute using the training that I got from UP. Because the training that we got from UP is for the service of the Filipino people,” he said.

Asked how he will continue pursuing medicine while training as a trial lawyer, Yarcia said, “Medicine and law actually they have very similar goals, which is to look at what bothers, what are the problems of the patient or the client and how do we help them?” 

“Both medical training and legal training, they just both aim to make life better for the society in general,” he added.