Course Spotlights – Public Health Law, Policy and Ethics

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Course Spotlights – Public Health Law Policy and Ethics.


This course, the Public Health Law, Policy and Ethics differs from bioethics and Law in that the focus is on communities and populations, and it’s not in particular on individuals.

This course examines a wide set of issues. It will be offered for the first time in the fall of this year. I’m just going to give you a much briefer of sense of what’s involved in this course.

It examines, for example, the appropriate balance between protecting individual liberty, and state regulations aimed at safeguarding population health – public health – that infringe on liberty.  You may say, “What does that mean?” Well for example, what about a law that requires vaccination? That is aimed at protecting public health, but it certainly will intrude on the liberty, particularly the liberty of someone who says, “I don’t believe in vaccinations, I don’t want one”. So how do we reach an appropriate balance in that case?

This course will also examine limits in the state’s obligation to protect people from harm. In particular from harm due to illness, natural disasters, bioterrorism.  It examines the impact of individual decisions and behaviors on health, and the impact of other factors – factors like class and access to health care and the overall health status of populations, both small populations within communities, and the nation’s population.

The sort of task that public health law is and others trained in public health law take up could involve challenging or defending depending on which side you’re on. The constitutionality of this sort of law – I mentioned mandatory vaccination law – that people interested in public health law might look at regulations in posing quarantine or isolation rules on people in the context of epidemics or threatened epidemics – think about Ebola last year.

People looking into public health and public health law might attempt to discern the fair distribution of scarce resources in medical emergencies, natural disasters, or in the face of bioterrorism.  They might address environmental factors that affect population health. For example, what about the effects of toxins in food, in air, in water?  All of these are things that people interested in public health and public health law look at and respond to.

The crucial point is that public health approaches illness very differently than the traditional medical system. It doesn’t focus on the individual patient or on the clinician-patient relationship. It focuses on the health or ill-health of populations.