Brown Gavel With Medical Stethoscope Near Book At Wooden Desk In Courtroom.

Health Justice, Structural Change, and Medical-Legal Partnerships

By Liz Tobin-Tyler and Joel Teitelbaum

To us, health justice means change.

Changes to norms and attitudes, to systems and environments, to law and policy, to resource and opportunity distribution. Not cosmetic or peripheral change, but wide-scale, systemic change. For health justice to be realized — for all people to reach their full health potential — laws and policies must be geared toward restructuring the systems, practices, and norms that have heretofore advantaged some groups over others, and thus given them greater opportunity for good health, economic and social prosperity, and greater longevity.

We recognize that this kind of change is profoundly challenging, both biologically and structurally. Biologically, because humans are programmed to do what’s comfortable, and what’s comfortable is what’s already known. Structurally, because of the nation’s unique political, social, and cultural attributes. Some of these attributes include a strong sense of individualism, and thus an entrenched unwillingness to prioritize community benefit over individual choice; limited governmental power; capitalism; unprecedented wealth with massive inequality; resistance to growing racial and ethnic diversity; over-spending on the downstream consequences of the failure to invest in upstream wellness; and a willingness to enact and maintain policies and practices that privilege some lives over others.

For these reasons, we are not naïve about the prospects for major change in a relatively short period of time, but neither are we cowed by the challenge. We embrace the opportunity to get uncomfortable, to challenge the racist, gender-based, and ableist norms and attitudes in all forms that harm health and well-being, to raise awareness of the inert systems that perpetuate health injustice, and to promote innovative and progressive law and policy change.

One of the ways that we apply our approach to health justice is our work to develop and advance medical-legal partnerships (MLPs), as both an expert consultant (Liz) to and Co-Director (Joel) of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

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Pulse oximeter used to measure pulse rate and oxygen levels in use on a person's finger.

‘I Can’t Breathe’: Racism in Medical Technology

By Aziza Ahmed

When Black Lives Matters (BLM) activists say “I can’t breathe,” they are acknowledging that breathing is not simply biological — it is enabled or disabled by law and politics. They are right.

In fact, the legal and political environment shapes and legitimates the very tools we use to monitor our capacity to breathe.

The racial justice uprisings and the COVID-19 pandemic have inspired advocates, scholars, and researchers to examine the assumptions about race that have embedded themselves into these tools — the medical technologies we use to measure if, and how, a person is breathing and absorbing oxygen.

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FLINT, MICHIGAN January 23, 2016: City Of Flint Water Plant Sign In Flint, January 23, 2016, Flint, Michigan.

Digging Deep to Find Community-Based Health Justice

By Melissa S. Creary

Public health interventions aimed at Black and Brown communities frequently fail to recognize that these communities have, over and over, been made sick by the systems that shape their lives.

When we fail to recognize that these problems are happening repeatedly, we are likely to address the most recent and egregious error, ignoring the systemic patterns that preceded it. Public health and technological policy responses that do not address these underlying structural and historical conditions are a form of bounded justice, i.e., a limited response sufficient to quiet critics, but inadequate to reckon with historically entrenched realities.

By only responding to the acute crisis at hand, it is impossible to attend to fairness, entitlement, and equality — the basic social and physical infrastructures underlying them have been eroded by racism.

To achieve health justice, we must move beyond bounded justice. Rather than simply recognizing the existence of underlying social determinants of health, we must do the hard work to create and re-create systems, interventions, policies, and technologies that account for that erosion and offer high-grade reinforcements.

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U.S. Supreme Court

There’s No Justice Without Health Justice

By Yolonda Wilson

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The Court reasoned that, among other things, the eviction moratorium was an overreach by the CDC. That is, even in light of a global pandemic where being unhoused increases one’s risk of acute COVID-19 infection and subsequent serious illness, the Court rejected the CDC’s argument for the connection between housing justice and health justice. The Court raised several telling rhetorical questions in their decision that were intended to show the potentially troubling slippery slope that would commence if the moratorium were allowed to stand:

Could the CDC, for example, mandate free grocery delivery to the homes of the sick or vulnerable? Require manufacturers to provide free computers to enable people to work from home? Order telecommunications companies to provide free high-speed Internet service to facilitate remote work?

Whereas the Court viewed the eviction moratorium as an overreach that would lead to unthinkably absurd consequences for other sectors of social and economic life, a Black feminist conception of justice, as expressed, for example, in the historic statement of the Combahee River Collective, is necessarily grounded in a sense of the importance of community, rather than as a mere collection of individuals who may have little to no connection with or obligations to one another. Though the Court prioritized the interests of landlords and real estate agents, a Black feminist conception of justice foregrounds the needs of the overall community, such that if the well-being of the community depended on free grocery delivery to the sick and vulnerable, then so be it. The community rises and falls together, and so justice must account for the whole, not merely the well-heeled. Implicit in this conception of justice is an understanding that the community can only thrive, can only aspire to a Black feminist conception of justice, to the degree that the community is well or ill.

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Symbol of law and justice, banknote of one dollar and United States Flag.

Saving Lives and Decreasing Costs: The Economic Case for Health Justice

By Wendy Netter Epstein

Most proponents of health justice will tell you that health is a fundamental human right. They will say that there is a moral imperative to eliminate health inequities and to give all people equal opportunity to lead a healthy life. And they will be correct. Health justice as a framework is driven by this narrative — the laudable goals of health equity and social justice.

What you aren’t as likely to hear from health justice advocates, however, is that health justice is economically efficient. To the contrary, most health justice advocates see its framework as an alternative to the markets, efficiency, autonomy, and individual responsibility that are the hallmarks of conservative ideology.

Yet, there is no question that health inequities are costly to the individuals that bear them, in higher health care expenses, missed days of work, and fewer years lived. There are also significant costs to society — both direct and indirect. According to one analysis, disparities lead to $93 billion in excess medical care costs and $42 billion in lost productivity per year.

Making the economic case for health justice, and noting how it is inextricably linked to the moral case, is crucial. Because not only is the framework bolstered by notions of both fairness and efficiency, but also, as a practical matter, getting legislative and regulatory buy-in to fund initiatives to address health inequities requires making the economic case.

If health inequities could be ameliorated, government health spending and other safety net spending would be drastically reduced, workforce productivity would increase, and even healthy and wealthy Americans — who are the most likely to oppose the health justice framework — would benefit.

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Emergency room.

Truth and Reconciliation in Health Care: Addressing Medical Racism using a Health Justice Framework

By Amber Johnson

Healing processes, such as the truth and reconciliation process, can operationalize the three components of the health justice framework — community empowerment, structural remediation, and financial and structural supports — to address the trauma of medical racism. Structural remediation and institutional change is a long and slow process; however, changing the way we interact with each other — through healing processes — can lead to swift, radical changes. Consider, for example, interpersonal racism in patient/provider health care interactions.

Interpersonal racism in patient/provider interaction can determine whether a patient’s needs are met, and can be the deciding factor between survival or death. From communication between a provider and a patient, to diagnosis and treatment, to follow-up care and pain management, the patient/provider interaction is integral to obtaining access to quality health care. When interpersonal racism is at play, the quality of care is substandard and health outcomes are negatively impacted.

Interpersonal racism is one aspect of patient/provider interaction(s) that has massive implications for health outcomes, and it is also one that hospitals and medical staff have the direct agency, resources, and time to change. But this must be done at least partially on an individual level — neither patients nor providers can eradicate racism without acknowledging the truth of the harm caused and healing from the harm.

Acknowledging the truth may be achieved through a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC), a process whereby parties who have been harmed and parties who have caused harm are able to share their experiences and revise ahistorical narratives, so that they reflect the truth and seek justice in the form of reconciliation, reparations, or some form of resolution.

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Blue stethoscope with gavel on white background

Equipping the Next Generation of Health Justice Leaders

By Yael Cannon

Health justice begins with exploring and understanding health disparities and the role of law in facilitating the social, political, and economic determinants at their roots. It requires naming structural racism — and the many forms of subordination that flow from it — as a public health crisis and recognizing that health justice is racial justice. Most importantly, health justice requires us to partner with affected communities to leverage law and policy to address and eliminate the root causes of disparities.

Those of us at schools of law and medicine, and other academic institutions who are training the next generation of lawyers, policy advocates and policymakers, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals have a special responsibility to equip our students with the knowledge, skills, and values they need to ensure that everyone has an equal chance at health and well-being.

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Envelope from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with the American flag on top/U.S. immigration concept.

Health Justice for Immigrants, Revisited

By Medha D. Makhlouf

A major contribution of health justice is that it provides a framework for understanding how universal access to health care protects collective, as well as individual, interests. The pandemic has underscored the collective nature of the health and wellbeing of every person living in the United States, regardless of immigration status.

In a 2019 article, Health Justice for Immigrants, I adopted and adapted the health justice framework to the problem of disparities in immigrant access to subsidized health coverage. I argued that, in future health care reforms, health justice requires that immigrants be included in the “universe” of universal access to health care. In this blog post, I revisit this argument in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This blog post applies the health justice lens to inequities in immigrant health and access to health care, drawing out lessons for the pandemic and post-pandemic eras. It describes three examples illustrating the utility of health justice for catalyzing cross-sector initiatives to improve health, reducing the role of bias in the design of interventions to address health disparities, and ensuring that such efforts are serving the needs of historically subordinated communities.

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elderly person's hand clasped in young person's hands

Vulnerability Theory and Health Justice

By Matthew B. Lawrence

If we want to understand how changes to the law might affect health outcomes, we must remain mindful that the law not only regulates how we behave in the world as it is, but also shapes the institutions and structures that make the world the way it is.

The dominant theoretical frameworks of classical liberalism and behavioral economics obscure this critical relationship.

In this blog post, I suggest that health justice and vulnerability theory fill this theoretical gap, and serve as invaluable, and largely complementary, frameworks for understanding health law and policy.

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Bracket fungi, or shelf fungi produce shelf- or bracket-shaped or occasionally circular fruiting bodies called conks. They are mainly found on trees.

Whack-a-Mole, Fungi, and Intersectionality, or What I’ve Learned from Health Justice

By Mary Crossley

Nearly three decades ago, I published my first law review article considering the law’s ability to address unequal treatment in a health care setting. The newly minted Americans with Disabilities Act was the law, and physicians’ reluctance to provide treatment to infants believed to be infected with HIV was the inequality. Eventually I expanded my horizon beyond disability law to consider potential legal remedies for physician bias across a range of patient traits. As I did so, I described the thread tying together my scholarly projects as “how the law responds (or fails to respond) to instances of health care inequality.”

The key word in that description was “instances.” It suggested that health inequality presents discrete problems for the law to address. Given those problems’ ubiquity, however, policy makers, regulators, and advocates deploying law against health inequities found themselves in a game of Whack-a-Mole. Whack one mole, and another one pops its head up. Address one instance of health injustice, and another pops up. The problem is that, no matter how quick our reaction times are, health inequality surrounds us, firmly embedded in American society. We need to look deeper to find its roots.

Over the last decade, the development of health justice frameworks, along with increasing public and legal attention to social determinants of health, have changed how I frame my scholarship, in several ways.

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