Scott Burris With an Update on Public Health Law: A NewPublicHealth Q&A

Oct 28, 2011, 5:04 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Scott Burris Scott Burris, Public Health Law Research

Update on 10/31: Scott Burris is at APHA and gave an overview this morning at the 2011 APHA annual meeting on how far the initiative has come since its inception two years ago.

The program has funded somewhere between $8 and 9 million dollars in public health law research so far, said Burris, many of which are starting to bear results. Researchers from Boston University School of Law and Harvard Medical School showed that companies that make antibiotics are encouraging the (over)use of those antibiotics by clinicians, a practice which is known to lead to antibiotic resistance.

PHLR is now focused on creating an online research community called SciVal for sharing methods, best practices and advances in the field. (PHLR staff is showcasing this new app at their booth #2060, so stop by to check it out if you’re here in Washington attending APHA). Burris also encouraged the audience to visit the PHLR website to take advantage of a wealth of resources on methods, all meant to guide this burgeoning field.


Public Health Law Research (PHLR), a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program based at Temple University, represents an initiative to promote effective regulatory, legal and policy solutions to improve public health. The program will have a strong presence at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting this year both during meeting sessions and at the Program’s booth on the exhibit floor. NewPublicHealth spoke with Scott Burris, JD, director of the program, about some of the upcoming presentations and booth demonstrations.

NewPublicHealth: Will you have many research results to show at this year’s APHA Annual Meeting?

Scott Burris: This is now Public Health Law Research at age 2.4 years. We are just starting to get results from our grantees, the people we funded in the first round and a few in the second and we have a number of them appearing at APHA this year. Our booth will have a complete guide to PHLR related events at APHA. Our Methods Core Member, Jeffrey Swanson, a professor at Duke University, is getting the 2011 Carl Taube Award for distinguished contributions to mental health services research. At our the booth, #2060, we’ve got a beta version of our Public Health Law Research Community application, which will eventually capture everybody who’s written in Public Health Law Research and all the papers that have been published. We’ll be demonstrating the app at our booth. We’ll also be showing our brand new seven-minute animated video about PHLR—popcorn included.

NPH: Can you point to some key PHLR research projects that will be presented at the APHA meeting?

Scott Burris: Here is a round-up.

  • Lead Courts: We’ve had a project that’s gotten a lot of attention here in Pennsylvania and I hope will spread to the rest of the country through APHA. The study was an evaluation of the world’s only lead court that was done by researchers at Drexel University. The special court was started by our local judges and the Department of Public Health to speed abatement of unsafe lead conditions in housing occupied by children. The research shows that this novel approach to improve enforcement of lead laws led to much faster abatement of hazards and better lead levels for kids.
  • Distracted Driving Laws: This paper is an example of how to develop a legal dataset and apply it to understanding a public health issue. The study shows how current law is diverging from the evidence on what sort of communications device use is hazardous. [Read more on distracted driving laws.]
  • Legal Datasets: We’ll be having a session at 8:30 on Monday morning that’s devoted to creation of legal datasets and showing how they are useful in evaluation research.
  • Land Use and the Environment and Crime: We’ll also be having a session on Monday about the effects of land use regulation on the environment and crime, which has come out of our Rand-funded study of zoning and health.
  • Community Benefit: Community benefit law is about the IRS and matching state regulations that require not-for-profit entities in health who are getting a tax break in their business to contribute some of that money back to the community. The study we’ve funded looks at exactly where that money is going and how decisions are made about where it goes. There’s a lot of interest in this in public health now given the fiscal challenges local health agencies are facing.

NPH: Do you anticipate much different questions about the program than you got two years ago?

Scott Burris: Definitely. Two years ago people asked us what public health law research is. Now they’re asking, how do we do it? How do we do it better? How can we get it funded? How can we find collaborators? And those are the questions, of course, that you want to have when you’re building from scratch. This is a big year for us in terms of showing that investment in public health law research is paying off.

NPH: Have you already seen implementation of any of the research?

Scott Burris: Some of our earliest impact has been in two infrastructural projects looking at the law and local public health practice. Gene Matthews and colleagues in North Carolina studied accreditation and the law—how the law was influencing the lead up to public health department accreditation [launched last month]. Another study funded by us at the Colorado Association of Local Public Health officials examined how law influences health departments’ ability to develop shared services agreements and practice. In both cases those results helped people make real time decisions about crucial public health management challenges.

NPH: You have a major conference on public health law research coming up in January in New Orleans. What will be some of the high points?

Scott Burris: Registration for the conference is still open. I think the biggest thing we’re going to do at our conference in New Orleans is a session on what we’re calling Critical Opportunities in Public Health Law. For the next year or so we’re going to be working with as many interested people as we can to get consensus on where law can be most effective as a tool for public health. So this isn’t a research agenda question, though there will be a research agenda attached to it, but rather an action agenda laws that improve health. We’re inviting anyone attending the conference to submit proposals for what they consider Critical Opportunities, and developed some preliminary criteria to use in figuring out what’s a critical opportunity for public health.

NPH: And what research are you working on right now?

Scott Burris: We’re doing a study on the relationship between health officers and their attorneys, which is a classic question that people have been wondering about really as long as I’ve been in public health law. They assume that it probably matters that health officers have good relationships with attorneys who understand public health but we don’t much about it. A couple of questions have been asked about legal representation on the NACCHO and ASTHO surveys, and we’re going in and digging deeper, talking to both health officers and their attorneys and asking how they work together and the factors that produce more or less effective use of law. We expect results this time next year for APHA.

>>Read up on public health law before the meeting here.

>>Get our take on APHA 2011 and follow the rest of the coverage here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.