Valentine (J.D./M.S.H.A. ’16) Bridging the Communication Gap in Health Care

Dr. Sheila Salvant Valentine (J.D./M.S.H.A. ’16), a 2016 Health Law Award recipient, joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the HIV prevention division as an ORISE fellow in 2016. Formerly, she was a primary-care physician practicing in the Caribbean, first in Jamaica and then in Turks and Caicos Islands.

Legal Mapping at the CDCWhy did you decide to study health law?
My background is in medicine; I was in practice for nine years. As a physician, I found it difficult to talk to administrators, lawyers and policy makers — it seemed like we wanted different things. But I realized that we all want the same result — for the health system to work and for people to be healthy. Because each of these groups speak a different language and have different approaches and different methods, it can be difficult to sit at a table and reach a goal together. I wanted to do something to help bridge the communication gap because in the end, we all have the same goal.

Part of your job as a fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) involves legal mapping. What is that? 
It is a field that’s still developing, and it’s very interesting. I research HIV- related laws in the United States and its territories and compare provisions in the law and policies across jurisdictions.

How is legal mapping helpful? 
The research will give insights into whether laws are a factor in the cause, distribution and/or prevention of HIV. Once my research is done, an epidemiologist will plot it out with numbers and data to see if there is a correlation or causation between the rates of HIV and laws in that state or jurisdiction.

What else do you do as a fellow? 
I practice traditional public health law. In addition, I am helping the CDC establish partnerships with legal organizations; traditionally, the partnerships have been with organizations that deal directly with HIV. With legal partnerships, we can keep track of what’s happening at the state level legally and learn more about what legal barriers people are facing.

 How does your background as a physician inform what you do now?
It’s helpful to have knowledge about the pathology of diseases — to understand the disease itself, its epidemiology, its treatment, etc. It’s also helpful to understand the physician’s perspective. For instance, in our research we may question why all physicians are not testing all of their patients routinely, but I have some understanding of the barriers physicians face.

Also, I work with so many physicians, so having
that background makes communication easier.

Adding my training as a lawyer enables me to see things differently; it gives me a different perspective, which is valuable.

What advice do you have for students?
I would encourage health law students to consider this particular field. It’s a lot of research, coding and analyzing — but it’s interesting and important. Public health law is a great field because the end product is healthy people.