In early October, I had the delightful opportunity to attend the 2018 Public Health Law Conference, sponsored by the Network for Public Health Law, in my hometown of Phoenix.
A Growing Field: Legal Epidemiology
One of the many engaging themes of the conference centered on the growing field of legal epidemiology and the study of law as a factor in public health outcomes.
Lawyers from the Centers for Disease Control and a host of other public and private institutions described their research and policy surveillance strategies to address topics, ranging from the impacts of telemedicine laws to climate change, medical cannabis, reproductive health, gun violence, and laws affecting LGBTQ and justice-involved populations.
While the concept of legal epidemiology may be old hat to the JD/MPH dual-degree graduates in the crowd, I found it fascinating to see the connections between trends in legislation across the states and correlated indicators of population health. It served as a great reminder that lawyers can be drivers of change outside the traditional forum of courthouse litigation.
Medical-legal Partnership Models
Another encouraging theme was the strong representation of emerging medical-legal partnership models (MLPs) aimed at addressing the social determinants of health – such as housing, transportation, and food security – as key factors in individual health outcomes.
Unfortunately, although MLPs have made great strides in demonstrating the value of their efforts, many continue to struggle to find a framework for financial sustainability. I hope that support for medical-legal partnerships and similar point-of-service intervention models will find growing acceptance in the ongoing conversation surrounding access to civil legal services.
Of course, not everything is coming up roses in the garden of public health law. Perhaps the most impassioned discussions churned over the spate of lawsuits in recent years that have leveraged notions of corporate personhood and organizational conscience to wield the First Amendment as a tool to strike down mandated public health messaging.
In the wake of cases that have invalidated sugar warnings on soft drinks, cancer warnings on cigars, and objective information requirements at crisis pregnancy centers, public health professionals worry that the unfettered self-interest of America’s “corporate citizens” may lead to the undoing of decades of successful public health messaging.
For public health-minded lawyers, one thing is certain: the battle will continue in the courts, in the data, and in the struggle to win the hearts and minds of a nation.