We may be living in a golden age of group-think. A weekly reminder is poor Paul Krugman railing against the apparently universal belief in America and Europe that we’ve got to cut budgets right now or disaster will strike. He calls this a Zombie idea, a false claim that has been falsified with plenty of stakes in the heart, silver bullets and blows to the head, but will not stay in the grave.
Closer to home for us in public health is the claim that Americans don’t like government rules regulating their behavior and meddling with their preferences. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have delivered some solid blows to the idea that paternalism typically messes with solid preferences. As we celebrate Public Health Week, I want to highlight two recent papers that show that Americans, like the children in Mary Poppins, actually like their nannies, who do some pretty great things.
Public Health Law Research has recently posted the manuscript of a paper that Evan Anderson and I have prepared for the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. The paper describes the dramatic rise of law as a tool of public health since the 1960s in five major domains: traffic safety, gun violence, tobacco use, reproductive health and obesity. These topical stories illustrate both law’s effectiveness and limitations as a public health tool. They also establish its popularity by the most apt of metrics – the willingness of legislators to enact it. The one picture worth a thousand words, below, depicts the rapid adoption of a variety of interventions by state legislatures. (By the way, the five examples also show that public health law research can and does influence the development and refinement of legal interventions over time.)
According to officials, the worst of this year’s devastating flu season should be over in most parts of the country. But in early January, the flu had hit 47 of 50 states. According to the CDC, a total of 78 influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported. Throughout this terrible flu season, there’s been much talk about vaccination mandates for health care workers.
States have started passing legislation regulating health care worker flu vaccination, and an increasing number of hospitals have started implementing policies in attempt to reach the Healthy People 2020 goal of having 90 percent of health care workers vaccinated. Only two-thirds of health care workers were vaccinated against the flu last year. This can leave patients at risk and hospitals short-staffed because of absenteeism.
The National Football League has given the National Institutes of Health $30 million for research on traumatic brain injury. There is much we don’t know about the causes, effects, prevention and treatment of sports-related brain injury – but that doesn’t mean that we should put all our eggs into the basket of biomedical research. Since Washington state pioneered its youth-sports brain injury prevention model-law in 2009, 40 states have passed laws setting out rules aimed at the problem (We’re tracking these on LawAtlas, the new PHLR policy surveillance portal). Most of these laws work by promoting identification of concussions, regulating the athlete’s return to play, and educating parents and coaches.
To put it another way, the nation, through a majority of its state legislatures, has embarked on a major initiative to reduce sports-related injuries. Tens of millions of people will be affected in some way – athletes, parents and coaches. Limited school-based resources will be consumed to comply with these laws. And, most importantly, people worried about the problem will, to some extent, rely on implementation of these laws to protect student athletes.
If this public health intervention were a drug or a new technique for changing behavior, its efficacy would be rigorously tested by government-funded research. Why should things be different because this possibly magic bullet happens to be based in the law? So far, the CDC has funded implementation case studies of youth sports concussion laws in Washington and Massachusetts. PHLR is funding a more in-depth study in Washington, with results expected next year.
It’s easy to see the value of including scientists in public health law research teams; most public health lawyers lack the training to conduct rigorous empirical research. It may be harder to see the need for adding lawyers to the research team, but their presence is no less critical. Sometimes scientists have as much trouble understanding the law as the lawyers have understanding the science.
The value of involving lawyers in public health law research became clear to me recently as I was working on a project relating to health policies affecting immigrants. One question I wanted to know was how the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) affected immigrants’ access to health insurance in the United States. So I decided to review the scientific literature. The results were dismaying.