What Is Health Law?

There are many ways to conceptualize health law. The Health Law & Justice Program views health law as encompassing not only the law of health care delivery and financing but all areas of study that focus on the intersection between law and health: from the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, to the role of government in preventing child maltreatment, to occupational health and safety regulations, to the laws governing elder care and death.  We have grouped our health law courses into four overlapping but distinct areas of study: health care law, public and population health law, bioethics, and global health law. Although these are not the only categories into which health law may be divided, we think these groupings provide a helpful lens for understanding the field’s multifaceted nature.

Health care law

Health care law focuses on the legislative, executive, and judicial rules and regulations that govern the health care industry. The health care industry includes hospitals and hospital systems, public and private insurers, pharmaceutical and device manufacturers, and the individual practitioners who treat patients. Each of these entities functions within a vast complex of laws and regulations, and our curriculum reflects this complexity by offering a variety of courses that focus on specific aspects of health care law, such as  fraud and abuse, food and drug law, medical malpractice, and healthcare mergers and acquisitions.

Public and population health law

Public health law has deep historical roots, but it has only recently emerged as a distinct area of legal study. Part of what distinguishes public health law is its focus on prevention and populations: whereas healthcare law generally focuses on the delivery of treatment to individual patients, public health law generally focuses on preventing injury and disease by lowering health risks among populations. Thus, a public health intervention, such as requiring cars to have airbags, may not decrease any particular individual’s risk of death as much as an expensive surgical procedure could, but when spread across a population, such interventions can make a huge difference in morbidity and mortality rates. Because of public health’s focus on populations, we group public health law together with those areas of study that focus on the health of particular populations, such as children and the elderly.  Our curriculum includes several courses devoted to public health law and the law governing the health of specific populations.

Bioethics

Health law raises unique ethical challenges. Even the question of how to define “health” is contested: it was only in the 1970s, for example, that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Beyond the difficulty of defining health is figuring out how to value it.  Because good health is a prerequisite for so much of what we do, it has a special value to many of us and cannot easily be balanced against other public or private goods. People also have conflicting intuitions about how to weigh the health of a single, identified person against the health of many, unidentified people. Finally, advances in health technologies introduce new and difficult questions, including: Do our genes belong to us? How can we protect patient privacy while maximizing patient health? And how should we define life and death? Our bioethics courses encourage students to grapple with these and other difficult questions.

Global health law

Global health law is an emerging field that addresses the health challenges associated with globalization and population growth. Global health law encompasses “international health law” but also extends beyond it in three important ways. First, whereas international health law focuses primarily on health-specific agreements, global health law examines a wider array of laws that affect but are not necessarily focused on health, such as laws governing trade, intellectual property, national security, human rights, and environmental protection. Second, whereas international health law focuses on agreements among nation-states that attempt to influence governmental behavior, global health law also addresses the legal rights and obligations of nongovernmental actors such as corporations, nonprofit organizations, and private individuals. Finally, whereas international health law focuses on international agreements, global health law also considers the impact that countries’ national and local laws have on global health. Thus, global health law breaks down many of the traditional distinctions that define international health law and, thereby, reflects the complexity of the health threats the world faces today. The Washington College of Law curriculum includes several courses designed to help students understand these threats and the unique legal and policy challenges they present.