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Since its inception in 2010, the Network for Public Health Law (Network) has aligned with federal, state, tribal, and local public health practitioners to assess how law can promote and protect the public’s health. In 2013, Network authors illustrated major trends in public health laws and policies emanating from an internal assessment of thousands of requests for technical assistance nationally. More recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has invited the Network and other partners to consider new ideas and strategies toward building a “culture of health.” Per Figure 1, RWJF’s conception of a culture of health emphasizes key action areas essential to the promotion of health across all sectors and diverse populations.
Over the past decade, a flurry of media stories devoted to sports-related concussions have drawn attention to the previously “silent epidemic” of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in athletes. From 2001 to 2009, the annual number of sports-related TBI emergency department visits in individuals age 19 and under climbed from 153,375 to 248,414, an increase of increase of 62 percent. Multiple head injuries place youth athletes at risk for serious health conditions, including cerebral swelling, brain herniation, and even death — postconcussive conditions that have collectively (and controversially) been referred to as “second impact syndrome.” Studies have shown that children and teens — and girls, in particular — are more likely to sustain a concussion and have a longer recovery time than adults. Recent research also suggests that even subconcussive hits in children and adolescents may result in longer-term health effects such as decreased cognitive functioning, increased rates of depression, memory problems, and mild cognitive impairment (a pre-Alzheimer’s condition).
Public health law research reveals significant complexities underlying the use of law as an effective tool to improve health outcomes across populations. The challenges of applying public health law in practice are no easier. Attorneys, public health officials, and diverse partners in the public and private sectors collaborate on the front lines to forge pathways to advance population health through law. Meeting this objective amidst competing interests requires strong practice skills to shift through sensitive and sometimes urgent calls for action to address known threats to the health of individuals and the community. It also necessitates objective, timely information and national and regional legal support.
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