Dispatches from APHA 2012

By Scott Burris

Two thoughts for the Friday following the 2012 APHA Annual Meeting:

(1) This is a public service message for public health lawyers and their extra-disciplinary significant others.

The American Public Health Association now has a Health Law Section. This is a big step up, in organizational terms. Until this year, health lawyers and those interested in public health law were just a special primary interest group (really, that’s what they called them at APHA – a SPIG.)  As a section, we have more opportunities to recruit members and fill presentation slots, and a greater voice in association governance.

That’s not the best part. The best part is that the officers behind the section and its elevation are all dynamic and mostly young. They’ve got energy and vision, which is going to make this section an exciting one to belong to.  They are making the case within the association and beyond for the importance of law to health, and they are taking a multi-disciplinary view. The section is bringing together legal practitioners in public health, normative legal scholars, and empirical public health law researchers.

The excitement and the benefits that this sort of interdisciplinarity can unleash were evident in the very first section session at this year’s APHA conference. Kathy Dachille, from the Network for Public Health Law, talked about current legal strategies to deal with bullying of LGBTQ kids. Pat Sweeney presented PHLR funded empirical research on health care worker vaccination laws. Marionette Holmes, an RWJF New Connections Scholar, offered fascinating early results from her study of an NYC program to support housing rights for people moving frequently between jails, shelters and homelessness.  We switched gears again with Ben Meier’s convincing argument for more normative legal research in global health. The session finished with Jonathan Todres trying to make sense of the role of law and public health in the control of human trafficking.

So take my advice: Join the section! Participate vigorously! Recruit your colleagues!

(2)  This is unabashed self-promotion. LawAtlas, our pilot policy surveillance portal, was launched three weeks ago at the National Public Health Law Conference. Our aim has been to show that true, ongoing policy surveillance, is feasible given more efficient methods and better technology.  We’re pleased to report that there’s been a lot of interest, especially in the Workbench (the on-line tool for making datasets.)  Dave Ross, a guru of public health informatics, called it “a critical tool for helping practitioners and legislators understand how law is being used to advance health.” This kind of support is good for all of us in public health law. The more the health types get what we do, the more they will be asking of us.

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