PHLR Annual Meeting Post-Mortem

This past week, PHLR hosted 150 researchers, lawyers, public health practitioners and others for our fourth annual meeting. With our theme for the conference in mind, “Driving Legal Innovation,” our attendees shared results of evaluations of laws and regulations, offered up suggestions for new ways to use law to improve health, and attacked head on the issues facing the United States and our public health.

While you wait for more multimedia content, here are a few highlight moments:

Despite a bad cough, Thomas Farley addressed the PHLR audience on Wednesday night. (He appeared by weblink, so good infection control practices were in effect.) He spoke about a few major initiatives NYC has undertaken using law as an intervention to improve health, including the crafty Green Carts program. This initiative harnesses the power of mobile food. Unlike  the ubiquitous NYC hot dog carts, green carts must carry and sell only raw, fresh vegetables. And they must sell them in areas that have high rates of obesity and diabetes. (There’s an interesting article in AJPH about mobile food vending. ) Research is still needed to evaluate whether or not these carts really make a difference in healthy eating habits and obesity and diabetes rates — but they are a clever place to start, and a clever use of licensing power.

Dr. Farley and Mayor Bloomberg are model evidence-based policy-makers. Dr. Farley remarked on the importance of persistence when passing innovative evidence-based laws. He shared that his lawyers worry more about being right than about being sued. This is remarkable and admirable – working for the public good, regardless of the economic, or political, cost.  You can flip through his full slide set here.

Throughout his address, Dr. Farley emphasized the  extreme value of researchers  in public debate on public health policy making. The role of researchers, he said, is  to generate ideas, assess the impact of policy on public health, and serve as expert voices.

In an interview with the NewPublicHealth blog before his address, Dr. Farley was asked, “How important has legal research been for some of the recent public health initiatives that have been introduced in New York City?”

His response:

“The research is extremely important to us in developing all of our policy approaches. When we are looking into a particular problem we think, what are the things driving the problem? What are general policies that might tend to lessen the problem?  And then we think in a very practical sense, what is the feasibility of those policies? What is their impact? And what is our legal authority to enact them or what is the legal authority for different legislative bodies to enact them? That all plays a very key role here, and then we look at a variety of other research too about the potential public response to it and put all of that together in deciding on what policies to promote.”

We can only hope other health policy-makers feel the same. He went on to explain, “The target for policy enactment to promote health falls in just a few categories that have potential for the biggest health impact. They include: smoking, things around food, things around physical activity and things around alcohol.”

So there we have it, the makings of a practitioner generated research agenda. Lucky for us, our grantees are already working hard on many of these issues.

At our meeting,  researchers presented an evaluation on sugar-sweetened beverage regulations and the horrific “Mountain Dew Mouth” (consider yourself warned if you decide to Google that term), they shared research on food-borne illness, concussion laws in youth sports, and many more outside of Farley’s suggested “Big Three” of alcohol, activity and smoking. We heard from researchers on hospital acquired infections, the Federal Lead and Copper rule, a successful prescription monitoring program in Utah, and cell phone bans. In all, we saw 34 presentations of public health law research. We’ll be making an effort to share slides from as many sessions as possible in the coming days and weeks.

After the general presentation sessions, our attendees once again took the stage for our Critical Opportunities challenge. We added six new recommendations of ways to use law as an intervention to improve health. The winner? Fortification of corn flour to improve nutrition among Latino women and babies.  It was a tough race, especially when you consider the other contenders: recommendations for gun violence prevention (this one took an early lead and was an obvious favorite – we asked the audience to vote among the others), local integrated government, GDL decal laws, making labels (particularly for food) more honest, and naloxone administration programs.  We’ll be sharing all of these great ideas in the coming weeks as well.

Pamela Hyde, JD, the Administrator for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration participated as a Critical Opportunities panelist, offering considerable insight on the issues of gun violence, mental illness and substance abuse. She was joined by JT Lane, the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Public Health in Louisiana, and Karen DeSalvo, Commissioner of Health for the City of New Orleans. A full Q&A with Administrator Hyde is available on NewPublicHealth.

Above and beyond the presentations was the substance of the conversations and network building. At the risk of sounding like my grandparents, in this age of virtual reality, nothing can take the place of getting a group of people together in a room. As members of a budding discipline, we have a duty to each other to bolster and encourage, as well as offer support to constantly improve our work and methods.

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