Critical Opportunities: Making the Case for Laws that Improve Public Health

Jul 2, 2012, 4:24 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

A highlight of last week's Public Health Systems Research Interest Group meeting, which followed the AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting, was a “Critical Opportunities” reception during which several presenters pitched their ideas for a law that could be used to improve or solve critical public health issues. The presenters were timed, given only five minutes to share the background of the issue to be addressed, their idea for the law, evidence that it could work and the feasibility of implementing the change. Attendees were encouraged to vote on their favorite to see which Critical Opportunity ranked highest--see below for the results!

This was the second such event since this year’s debut of Critical Opportunities for Public Health Law, an initiative of the Public Health Law Research Program (PHLR), a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program at Temple University. The goal is to make the case for laws that can improve current critical public health needs by:

  • Identifying important ways to use law to improve the public’s health
  • Enhancing public and professional recognition of law as a vital force for better public health
  • Guiding public health law research

NewPublicHealth caught up with two of the invited presenters, who also accrued the most votes on their topics--Tamar Klaiman, assistant professor at the Jefferson School of Population Health in Philadelphia, and Georgia Heise, DrPh, director of the Three Rivers District Health Department in Kentucky, and recently elected vice president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.


Tamar K Tamar Klaiman, Jefferson School of Population Health

NewPublicHealth: What did you both present on?

Tamar Klaiman: The policy that I addressed is about requiring physicians to offer new parents TDAP (pertussis) vaccines because infants who are [less than] six months of age are at the highest risk of mortality from pertussis, and so parents can protect their children by being vaccinated. Around 80 percent of pertussis cases in infants, when they can track where the pertussis came from, come from parents. The policy that I talked about is having providers offer pertussis vaccine to new parents prior to leaving the hospital or birth center with the newborn.

NPH: Why would that be valuable?

Tamar Klaiman: Newborns are not fully protected against pertussis until after their 6-month booster so vaccinating parents offers the best protection. So it’s a very low risk, high reward policy.

NPH: Are there states that are already implementing this law?

Tamar Klaiman: None as far as I know.


Georgia Heise Georgia Heise,Three Rivers District Health Department in Kentucky

NPH: Georgia, what’s your critical opportunity?

Georgia Heise: I talked about voluntary public health department accreditation for local health departments. Accreditation encompasses a myriad of standards that cover the mission of public health and what health departments should be doing. This would standardize public health across the nation and force into place a lot of preventive measures and assessments and best practices that the health department would be doing things that would actually make a difference in population health.

NPH: Why is this a critical opportunity?

Georgia Heise: I think that across the United States we operate on a medical model, which means we don’t really put enough funding into anything that would teach people how to be healthy or keep them healthy. We put a lot of money into taking care of somebody once they’re sick or dying. We need to push in the opposite direction and focus on keeping people healthy, and these accreditation standards are a framework for health departments to start that. There’s now an opportunity for health departments to become accredited at the national level. It’s in place and ready to go, however, not all the health departments have opted in yet.

Results of the Critical Opportunities Vote at AcademyHealth

About 100 people texted their votes for the presentations at the Interest Group meeting. The results were as follows:

  • Requiring physicans to vaccinate parents of newborns against pertussis (whooping cough) to better protect young babies: 50 percent of votes
  • A law requiring that states health departments be accredited and that funding be provided to go through the accreditation process: 24 percent of votes
  • Establishing comprehensive laws to deal with designer drugs such as synthetic marijuana that would be broad enough to encompass new drugs as they are introduced: 18 percent of votes
  • Creating standards for public health department contracts with private entities: 9 percent of votes

>>Watch YouTube videos of Critical Opportunities presentations at the Public Health Law Research Program meeting earlier this year.

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