March 4, 2016

The Lancet—O’Neill Institute, Georgetown University Commission on Global Health and the Law

In 2015, Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law launched a partnership with The Lancet, one of the world’s premiere medical journals, in an effort to explore how the law can improve health outcomes for people around the world.

Co-chaired by Georgetown professors Lawrence Gostin and John Monahan, The Lancet—O’Neill Institute, Georgetown University Commission on Global Health and the Law brings together experts in law and medicine to chart the next legal agenda for global health.

Since its creation, the commission has met twice to discuss obstacles and opportunities in improving global health through law and plans to publish a formal report of its findings in early 2017.

The Relationship between Health and Law

Law affects health at every level, from domestic to global, explains Susan Kim, deputy director of the O’Neill Institute. Legal policies regulate food and drug products, access to healthcare, and the framework for international action in the event of an epidemic.

In some instances, the law can promote positive health outcomes. Monahan observes that the “rapidly growing number of countries—high income, middle income, and low income—that have developed pre-paid health service or universal coverage programs for their populations” is one example of the power of law in advancing global health.

Yet the law can also fail as a tool. Monahan points to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a global example of the law falling short. Despite the existence of an international treaty for responding to global health emergencies, the World Health Organization (WHO) lagged in responding to the threat of the Ebola virus. When UN member countries finally acted, many enacted crippling trade and travel regulations that complicated an effective response, said Monahan. 

Legal Agenda

Through its partnership with The Lancet, the commission seeks to present the global health community with a framework that defines existing law, explains the progress of global health, and offers recommendations for the development of a legal agenda for global health.

Ultimately, Kim said, one of the commission’s goals is to provide the impetus for countries to better integrate medical research into their legal and policy agendas.

The commission will meet in spring 2016 to formalize its framework. Monahan and Kim pointed to healthcare laws, such as those regulating illegal drug use, HIV/AIDS treatments, and mental healthcare, and legal areas with huge indirect impacts on health, such as migration, trade agreements, and climate change, as potential topics to be included in the commission’s future recommendations.

Global Reach

The commission, consisting of 15 people, is diverse not only in its areas of expertise but also in its geographical makeup, convening legal and medical leaders from Iraq, Switzerland, Rwanda, Colombia, Argentina, Belgium, and the United States.

Monahan noted the importance of the global reach of the commission, saying that “diversity—North/South, law, and health—gets people to look at the issues together and work together in a different way.”

Lasting Impact

The commission will eventually publish its report in The Lancet.

While the agenda certainly has a scholarly component, the commission hopes that the report will energize individuals to start building greater legal capacities in their respective states and to foster a national and international dialogue about the relationship between law and health.