Enhancing Public Health Law and Education

Robert Wood Johnson fellows

The fellows at a 10-day summer institute held in July in Park City, Utah. The conference was cosponsored by Georgia State Law’s Center for Law, Health & Society and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Robert Wood Johnson Program fellows develop interdisciplinary approaches to advancing health through law 

Georgia State Law and its Center for Law, Health & Society led a national program, The Future of Public Health Law Education: Faculty Fellowship Program, to enhance public health law teaching in 2014–15. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 10 faculty fellows developed interdisciplinary courses and programs at their respective universities.

“One of our main goals is to share and build resources that foster model approaches and best practices for teaching public health law,” said Charity Scott, Catherine C. Henson Professor of Law and program faculty lead. “The projects have had an incredibly positive impact on the fellows’ students, their schools and their community partners.”

Five faculty mentors, selected for their varied experience, were paired with two specific fellows and worked with the larger group.

Online Resources

Georgia State Law developed two online resource libraries for faculty of law and public health schools — a collection of teaching tools and a database of substantive materials with contributions from the fellows, mentors and other public health law faculty.

Access the libraries>>

“The program committee sought to develop a community to support and sustain the fellows’ efforts, and the mentors were a critical part of that,” said mentor Leslie Wolf, professor of law and Center for Law, Health & Society director. “The bonds that were created through the program will benefit public health teaching for years to come.”

The projects applied innovative approaches to teaching — from creating clinical and externship opportunities to collaborating with other disciplines in medicine and social work to serving nonprofit and governmental agencies in the fellows’ communities — and demonstrated the important role that law plays in advocating for and advancing public health initiatives.

Interdisciplinary approaches

“It is critical to recognize law as a service profession with health law setting the example,” said fellow Amy Campbell, associate professor of law and director of the Health Law Institute at University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. She developed a curriculum that would “engage student lawyers to be community- and civic-minded professionals able to communicate and partner with a variety of health professionals and key public, private and other community stakeholders in using law to advance health.”

The primary component was a health policy practicum course. Students worked on the Healthy Homes Partnership, a collaboration of the law school’s Institute for Health Law & Policy, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and Shelby County Health Department to address negative impacts of substandard housing on child and family health (this partnership served as a “proof of concept” to help develop a medical-legal partnership with Le Bonheur).

Campbell emphasized that a lawyer’s role is often to negotiate among many stakeholders to cultivate consensual approaches to achieve healthy ends.

“To be effective, lawyers must be able to converse with others, to understand their cultures — or at least appreciate such and ask insightful questions when needed,” she said. “They must be able to interpret their insights in lay-friendly terms and be sensitive to the limits of the role and value of the law, and they must appreciate the value of others’ expertise in crafting legal responses and policy approaches to vexing health issues.”

Fellow Laura Hermer agreed. “By sharing educational experiences with students and professionals from other disciplines, students learn ways of approaching and analyzing issues by drawing on different disciplinary experience, theoretical concepts and analytical methods that enrich both the material and the discussion,” said Hermer, associate professor of law at Hamline University School of Law.

Hermer’s project examined the interrelationship between law, socioeconomic determinants of health and public health. In addition to classroom work and field trips in the St. Paul metro area, she developed a clinical component through a medical-legal partnership with United Family Medicine.

“By working with health care professionals to offer services to patients with potentially intertwined medical and legal needs, students can help to improve the patients’ overall health,” Hermer said. “The curriculum allows students to gain a rich awareness and understanding of the embedded and often systemic relationships between the client’s health and the legal constructs that shape the client’s social and physical environments.”

In her project, Elizabeth Tobin Tyler explored the role of law in preventing disease and injury. Tyler, assistant professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown University School of Public Health and assistant professor of family medicine at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, developed a course for medical, public health and public policy students at Brown and law students at the Roger Williams University School of Law. Students were divided into interdisciplinary teams to work on community-based projects.

“The course provided a foundation for students to understand the importance of law in public health, including the constitutional framework for governmental public health authority, as well as the inherent tensions between individual rights and protection of public health,” she said. “I hope this course will continue to help law students understand how to use the law creatively to achieve public health goals but also will help public health and medical students realize how fundamental law is to improving patient and population health.”

“It is as important to teach future lawyers about leadership, resilience and working with other disciplines as it is to teach them about torts, contracts and constitutional law,” fellow Sarah Davis said.

Davis, clinical associate professor of law at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Law and associate director of the interdisciplinary Center for Patient Partnerships, created an online community to complement her students’ externships at local and remote locations.

“The online public health law practice workshop enables students to reflect upon their experiences, learn from other students who will be at different types of organizations and strengthen companion professionalism skills — no matter where their externship is located,” Davis said.

Davis’ course includes six broad practice topic areas: non-legal skills essential to lawyering; partnering with other public health professionals; organizational fit; using evidence to craft legal solutions; strategic communication and advocacy; and lawyering under uncertainty in the 21st-century public health arena.

“It is essential that students learn how to work across disciplines,” she said. “This takes practice, intentionality and organizational commitment. Students and professionals can’t merely be thrown together and expected to work effectively — they need tools and structure to make it successful.”

Shaping education

The fellows agree the fellowship experience was invaluable.

“The fellowship program gave me insight and support at every level,” Tyler said. “I feel more confident in my knowledge of public health law and as a teacher after this program.”

Davis commended the amount of support and encouragement. “Having access to such a wealth of ideas was simply outstanding,” she said. “Legal education is changing rapidly, and faculty need to adapt to the justified changing demands of students. Programs like this fellowship equip faculty to do just that.”

Hermer added, “The fellowship program was a master class in how to teach in a dynamic, creative, multi-modal manner. Through the program, we’ve created a community from which we can draw ideas and help going forward. All of this is truly a testament to everyone involved from Georgia State Law. The program overall has changed how I teach for the better, and for that I am grateful.”

The program also altered Campbell’s approach to teaching. “This was an amazing experience that renewed my passion for tying academia to the community and the private and public sectors,” she said.